The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Tina

 

Love, Pure and Simple
Chapters 36 - 40

Part 36

Scott gave Val time to settle down and to some degree tidy up after he got done munching and licking his fingers. A sight he hoped to never witness again. Val wasn’t overly particular about his manners, not that he probably thought he had to have any while he sat in the privacy of his office, but Scott turned his head away from the scruffy sheriff more than once for fear he’d get an attack of the upset stomach just from watching him. When he thought Val was done, he turned back to him asking the questions he had come to see him about in the first place.

"Did you manage to find anything while you were staking out the site where the money was buried?” Scott asked watching Val put several piles of paper on top of one another, heedless of what was on them, nor seeming to care very much if they were important or not.

Val rubbed his tongue across the inside of his bottom lip, making a face that looked as if he suddenly had a bad taste in his mouth. “Not a dang blasted thing Scott. I got in early this mornin’ after three gut bustin’ days of sittin’ on my butt doin’ nothin’ and seein’ nothin’ with that fancy spyglass of yours. Headin’ back out in a few more hours once I git this ache in my belly settled down.” Val rubbed at his stomach while stacking a few more sheets of paper on top of his growing pile, the last of which looked to be wanted posters, newly arrived, yet not officially up on the front board outside his office.

Scott craned his neck; suddenly curious at the image he saw on the last poster that Val placed on top of the stack. He picked it up as Val stood, walked across the room and poured himself a cup of the stale coffee.

“Val?” Scott asked.

With the cup to his mouth, Val said, “Hmmmm?”

Scott shoved the paper at him, “This. Who is this?”

Val took the poster from Scott’s hand and studied it, taking a sip of his coffee every now and then before taking it back to his desk and sitting down with a frown on his face. “Says here its Bruce Craddock. Wanted for two murders down in Salinas, robbery in Carson City, Tucson, Las Cruces and Abilene.” Val looked up at Scott, the poster going flat on the desk as Val rubbed the edges with his thumbs, “Seems to me like this hombre made a name fer himself crossin’ the country all the way from Texas.” Val raised one dark eyebrow, “You thinkin’ you seen this lowlife Scott?”

Scott shifted in his seat and arched his brows, “I’m not sure, but I’m thinking that we did.”

Val narrowed his eyes, “We?”

“Murdoch and I. I can’t remember when exactly, but I think it was just before our accident and right before the bank got robbed.”

Val scooted his chair closer to his desk, “Where?”

Scott thought for a moment, “I think it was in the saloon. I’m not sure but that seems the most likely place.”

Scott stood up, thinking and pacing across the office floor in front of Val’s desk, “Come to think of it, I think he may have been at the bank too.” Leaning over Val’s desk, Scott took the poster in his hands again and studied the image of a thin man with a long running scar down the side of his face. He shook the poster at Val, “I’m almost certain of it. You’ll have to ask Larry at the saloon and Terrance at the bank though to confirm it, but if I had to swear on it, I would.”

Val stood up, the wooden chair under his seat crashing back with a loud bang against the wall. He grabbed the poster off the desk and with quick strides went straight for the front door of his office.

Scott called out to him before he could leave, “Val?”

Val halted just as he grabbed for the handle of the door, turning back with a grimace on his face, a stark contrast to the scraggly, carefree man he usually was, “No time Scott. I got a bad feelin’ on this one and I aim to find me out some answers right quick. I ‘spect yer headed to Sadie’s. Just make sure you watch yer tail on the way home. You comprende?” he asked seriously.

Scott nodded, “I understand. If it’s him, you make sure to take a care too while your out there.”

Val rubbed his palm on the butt of his gun, “No need to worry ‘bout me boy. I wasn’t always a sheriff,” he told Scott, the story behind the statement unknown to the young man, raising a curiosity that ached to be satisfied. Scott watched Val leave, seeing him differently, than any other previous time. The man that just left him looked and acted deadly and dangerous, belying the image, the cover, that others mistook for ineptness and maybe a touch of cowardice, traits his brother Johnny never once acknowledged or gave in to, for Johnny knew differently.

Scott left the office, a heavy weight of information weighing him down, causing him worry if what he suspected was true. They were in danger. A man like Bruce Craddock, as Val described from the wanted posters, wouldn’t stop at just taking pot shots at two men in a buckboard without a good reason. There had to be something else going on. He just hoped that Val could figure out what and in the meantime he would let his father know what he discovered. Like Val, Scott had a bad feeling too and he thought it somehow all related to this Bruce Craddock, the bank robbery, and the accident. A trail of too many coincidences for him and his family not to be concerned considering that this man seemed to have a pattern and right now, that pattern looked as if it might be leading to Lancer.

***************************************

While Scott spent the day with Sadie, Val spent the rest of the afternoon talking first to Larry at the saloon, whom he soon found out did indeed remember the tall skinny cowboy with the livid scar running down his face, “Yep that was him. Nasty character if you ask me. Now I know why. Dern fool paid me with a twenty dollar gold piece. Ain’t seen one of them in a coon’s age. Plunked it down meaner than a polecat with a burr up his butt.”

Val leaning with his elbows on the surface of the polished bar, scratched at the scrub on his face, “You recall when that was Larry?”

“I surely do at that Val,” Larry said, running a clean white cloth along the top of the bar before picking up the glasses and running it through them as well, “I’d say it was about a month ago.”

“Just before the bank was robbed?”

Larry nodded, throwing the towel down on the bar, planting his elbows in like fashion to Val, nodding his head, brown eyes lighting up with remembrance, “Yep, seems like that’s what I recall.”

“Sheez!” Val exclaimed through gritted teeth, “Damn varmint must have been eyeballin’ us the whole time.” He slapped a hand down on the bar, “Thanks Larry. I’ll be seein’ yah.”

Larry called out to Val as he crossed the near empty saloon, only a couple of regulars seated at two of the tables, “You think it was him, that robbed the bank Val?”

“That’s what I’m thinkin’ Larry,” Val called over his shoulder as he pushed his way out the batwing doors of the saloon, his next stop, Terrance Littleton over at the bank.

*************************************

Scott and Sadie sat on a blanket next to a small meandering stream that ran through her family’s property. There was left over fried chicken her mother Fiona had packed for them and an assortment of other finger foods just right for eating with your hands on a lazy afternoon spent having a picnic under the hanging boughs of a thick old oak tree.

Sadie watched Scott as he picked up another piece of chicken, a smile on his face when he looked up and caught her staring at him. “You want the last piece?”

Sadie laughed, “No, I think I’ve had enough. You go on and finish it off. Ma is going to be very happy when we get back and finds out you like her chicken.”

Scott swallowed and said in between bites, “I do like her chicken and these,” he held up a thin plain looking cookie, “are the best.”

Sadie grinned and picked one up herself and took a bite, “They are good. They don’t look like much until you put one in your mouth and then they just sort of melt, don’t they?”

“Um Hum,” Scott said, his mouth full, his bright blue eyes sparkling with happiness.

Sadie refilled their cups with lemonade and passed one to Scott who took it gratefully and washed down his food. Scott sat down his cup and said, “That was good.”

“Thank you,” Sadie said.

“Feel like taking a walk before we head back?” Scott asked her, while he helped Sadie begin to put things back into the basket she had prepared for them.

Sadie looked up at him through thick dark lashes, their hands touching as they both put an item back into the basket, “I think that would be very nice.”

Sadie marveled at the blueness of his eyes, drowning in the rich warmth reflecting back at her. She sighed, feeling very much like the luckiest woman on the planet every time their eyes met and held for that one interminable moment when they locked onto her. Sadie’s heart somersaulted when their hands met over the basket again and Scott took the opportunity to grasp her fingers in his hand.

He pulled Sadie toward him, pushing the wicker basket out of her path, pulling her until she was on her knees in front of him, her hair spilling down her back in great thick burnished shades of reds and gold’s. Cupping her face between the palms of his hands, he brought her closer until their mouths were mere inches apart, sucking in his breath thinking he might die then and there as he watched her lick her pink lips and lean in closer, eyes closing, waiting for him, for the touch of his lips upon hers.

With his head tilted up, Scott brought those pink rosy lips to his and touched them with his own, at first gentle and undemanding, then with more pressure as Sadie leaned into him and they tumbled back upon the blanket, her long tresses draping them like a thick heavy curtain. Scott’s fingers found their way into the thick luxurious mass, his kiss deepening as his body trembled from the feel of her body laying so wantonly over his hard chest, her breast firmly pressed to his, begging to be touched and fondled by his hands. Hands that resisted the urge for proprieties sake but burned nevertheless as he ground his mouth to Sadie’s and yearned for her like no other woman before.

He spun over, taking Sadie with him, finding himself in a position over her when he was done. Scott pulled his mouth away and gazed down into summer green eyes, no words between them uttered, yet a communication of sorts, age old and wondrous passed between them. Scott lowered his head, the neatly combed hair from earlier that morning now completely and thoroughly mussed as Sadie ran her fingers through it, taking his kisses with a deep satisfied smile that made Scott’s heart turn to jelly each time he saw it. He moved slightly off her, their kiss never interrupted for a second, pushing his left leg between hers, pushing them together like two pieces of an interlocking puzzle, marveling at how well their bodies seemed to fit to one another even with all their clothes on.

Later, their passion only just slightly appeased by their zealous kissing, they strolled hand in hand beside the stream, talking nonsensically as two people in love do when no one is there to hear them, both thinking of the future and sharing with one another their ideals on what being together would mean for them. No commitments made or broken, just a promise of what could be, if and when they made the decision to commit one to another. The horizon of their relationship looked promising and both persons found that they wanted and shared the same hopes and dreams for the opportunities that awaited them if they chose to walk through life hand in hand, together as one.

*************************************

The campfire blazed, lighting up the faces of the tired and hungry men who walked tiredly into camp, ready for Jelly’s grub, hot coffee and a little sleep if they were lucky enough to catch some shuteye.

Johnny trailed behind his men, the heels of his black boots scuffing the dirt with each step, his spurs jangling each time his foot hit the ground. Jelly noted with grim satisfaction that at least he looked better, having finally slept a full night for the first time since they started the drive three weeks ago. He was eating too, though Jelly suspected not nearly enough by the leanness of his frame and the taut hard muscles that rippled when he moved, well defined even through his loose fit flashy colored shirt. If not for the four-day-old growth, Jelly would have remarked silently upon his face, which had a chiseled, harder look to it, the black facial hair adding a hard-edged toughness that wasn’t there before. If not for the brilliance of those blue eyes and the gleam of white teeth, Jelly thought that most people would have found him near unrecognizable.

Three weeks on the trail, three weeks rough riding and three weeks of backbreaking cattle wrestling had changed the boy into a man by all appearances. He wondered if that devil may care boyish behavior would return when the drive was over. He hoped so. He missed the free spirited young man with whom he had a special fondness and love for, feeling more like a father or an uncle to Johnny, rather than just an old wrangler who Johnny had taken into his heart so readily. Others might not have after all he had done to the Lancers when he first went to their ranch under false pretenses. His deception had been forgiven and Jelly never forgot he had Johnny to thank for making it happen by coming to his defense when he found out he had been caring for his boys and trying his best to make do for all of them.

Jelly pulled his old eyes from a quite passing Johnny, determined to get back to the business at hand. He stirred a thick stew cooking in a large Dutch oven with a wooden spoon, rapping it on the side of the heavy black pot before putting it down. “You men come and git it when yer of a mind too! Food’s hot and thars plenty of it!”

Like thundering cattle, the men in camp answered Jelly’s call for supper, swamping together, forming a line, tin dishware held out as Jelly plopped dipperful after dipperful onto their plates, beef stew and fresh baked biscuits the main course, with black berry cobbler and cinnamon spiced apples for desert.

When the men were fully served and had found themselves a place to park and eat, Johnny made his way to Jelly, picking up plate and held it out. Grinning, Johnny prodded the plate into Jelly’s arm saying, “Keep that mouth of yours open any longer and you’re gonna catch flies in it.”

Jelly’s whiskered mouth suddenly shut and he plopped down an overflowing dipperful of stew onto Johnny’s plate with a huff, “Smart aleck!” he said, though his old eyes gleamed with a smile hidden in their aging depths.

When Jelly went to put a second dipperful on his plate, Johnny stopped him with his hand and said, “No more Jelly. This is fine.” He reached past the elder man and grabbed a biscuit; “I’ll take one of these though,” Johnny said taking a bite out of it before Jelly could do much more than splutter an oath under his breath.

“Dang burn it Johnny! You need to eat more ‘en that,” Jelly told him, “That ain’t enough to feed a bird,” he hissed leaning in closer trying once more to put more food on Johnny’s plate.

Johnny pulled his hand and his plate away from his would be guardian and replied, “It’s plenty Jelly. If I want more, I’ll get more. Now leave me be so I can eat what I do have before it gets cold.”

Jelly shook his head and put the dipper back into the stew pot, grumbling under his breath as he put the lid on haphazardly while Johnny walked away and sat down by himself to eat. For a time there wasn’t much said at camp while everyone ate.

Jelly looked over his shoulder and saw that Johnny was sitting on the ground where his bedroll lay, crossed legged with his plate in the hollow of his legs. He ambled over, wiping his hands on a dishcloth and sat down with a grunt next to him. “You reckon we’ll be getting’ to Stockton soon?” Jelly asked, crossing his legs together with a grimace and flopping the dishtowel over his left shoulder.

Johnny chewed his food and swallowed before answering, “I ‘spect from what Ray told me earlier we should reach Stockton sometime tomorrow evenin’ if it don’t rain.” Johnny looked up into the clear dusky sky, noting the twinkle of several early stars that could already be seen though it wasn’t full on dark just yet, no sign of rain evident, nor had there ever been the entire journey. It was a joke Johnny had started with Jelly several days ago when he could be heard near a mile away complaining about the searing heat and the lack of “God’s tears” as Jelly liked to call it when it did rain.

Jelly shouldered him, and Johnny laughed. The two of them sitting in companionable silence as Johnny finished off his supper. When he was done Jelly took his plate from him and asked, “How ‘bout some more boy?”

“Naw, I’m good Jelly,” Johnny said.

“You headin’ back out or you gonna get cleaned up some?” Jelly asked him.

“Headin’ back out. I gotta relieve Ray so he can come in and eat,” Johnny told him pushing himself up with one hand until he was standing. He reached out a hand to Jelly and helped the older man up, which Jelly was grateful for since he wondered only seconds ago how he was going to get his old bones untangled, sure he wasn’t going to be near as graceful about it as Johnny was.

“I’ll be back late tonight, when Jess comes to relieve me later,” Johnny said once Jelly was sound on his feet.

“You plannin’ on keepin’ that scrub brush on yer face or shavin’ it off any time soon?” Jelly asked, his curiosity getting the better of him. “I can take care of it if yer of a mind to,” Jelly offered.

Johnny’s blue eyes crinkled in the fading light, “What’s the matter Jelly, don’t I look distinguished with my scrub brush? I’m just takin’ after you, you know.”

Jelly rolled his eyes and started walking away; he turned around after a few steps and said, “Yer just full of sass, ain’t ya?”

Johnny laughed, pulling his hat from around his neck and putting it on his head, firming it down with one hand in the front and one at the back, “Scott would say I’ve been influenced.”

“Influenced my scrawny hide!” Jelly retorted with a chuckle, scoffing at the very idea that Johnny could be that affected by anyone if he wasn’t of a mind to be.

Johnny sauntered over to where Jelly now stood near his pot, reaching around him with one arm, grabbing another biscuit from the big platter that Jelly kept them on, covered by a large dishcloth to keep the flies and other bugs off.

Jelly made a motion as if to grab at Johnny’s hand, pivoting on his heels and turning as Johnny made his getaway, backing up before Jelly could swat him with his dishtowel. The old wrangler watched him stuff half the biscuit into his smiling face and wave a goodbye, before turning on his boot heels and disappearing beyond the light of the campfire. The remaining light of day was too dark now for his old gray eyes to see any further past the first string of the remuda to where Johnny had his own set of horses tethered on long lines and grazing.

Jelly chuckled and turned back to his workstation, the dishes piling up as some men went back to work like their boss had done or moved to settle in for a short rest before taking over another shift later on. Jelly was glad to see that bright smile in the dark face; one he thought might have gone by the wayside with the responsibility and workload thrust upon Johnny’s shoulders the day his father and brother got hurt. Thankfully it was still there, though rarely seen as of late, and so was the teasing, happy go lucky personality that Jelly feared was lost, only to find that he shouldn’t have doubted for a second that Johnny would lose the essence of who and what he was, a boy at heart, and a man who knew how to be a man when he needed to.

**************************************

Darkness shrouded the loan rider who was picking his way through the night toward the riverbed where he had last been just a little over two weeks before. Cautiously riding his horse through the darkened wooded area, lighted not nearly enough by the full moon that shown bright and heavy in the skies above the treetops.

Normally he wouldn’t have taken his horse through such a treacherous setting as the one he was in, but his demented curiosity had gotten the better of him and he just had to go and check on his buried treasure. A treasure that soon enough would be doubled or tripled even if Johnny Lancer got top dollar on the sale of Lancer beef.

One excursion into town by Clyde Willows to get the San Francisco Chronicle from the Green River postmaster, told Bruce Craddock that the price of cattle was skyrocketing. He suspected that the young man left unharmed and known to several of his cronies as Johnny Madrid had no idea the price of cattle was going up and by the time he arrived in San Francisco ready to deliver his herd of beef, would be traveling back with much more on him that he supposed the boy would have expected.

The knowing made Craddock’s heart race and his hands to shake as he read the paper by the light of their campfire. He had glanced over the edge of the paper, almost forgetting to hide the malicious glee on his face when he caught Clyde and Butcher Drake staring at him as if he had lost his mind temporarily.

Always suspicious and smarter than he appeared, Clyde Willows asked flatly what it was that he had read that made him look like the cat that ate the canary, before Bruce had hidden his revelations completely from Clyde’s astute appraisal.

The hackles on Craddock’s hide bristled with the blunt question, not wanting any of his men to know just yet that there may be a lot more money involved than he was willing to share with them. His intentions were to get his hands on the money long before anyone had a chance to count it or divvy it up amongst themselves. Bruce thought of his men as a little less than ignorant, willing to follow orders blindly with a firm hand in place. All except Clyde who kept silent most of the time, not carrying on with the others unless there was a need to interfere when Bruce lost his temper and took things way beyond the extreme if he was of a mood to kill.

Unlike Bruce who thought he was near invincible, Clyde Willows believed in banding together, showing a force and taking what he wanted, only going to the extreme if pushed beyond his capacity for tolerance. Then he was just as dangerous and lethal, ready to kill or be killed without an ounce of thought given to the circumstances or dangers of the situation.

Craddock rolled his shoulders and ducked his head as he passed beneath the last overhang before reaching the riverbank. Now out in the open, he pulled tight on the reins, stopping his horse in mid stride, assessing the area and getting a bearing on where he remembered he had buried the money.

Reaching into his vest pocket, Craddock pulled out a cheroot and lit it, the tendrils of smoke drifting lazily around his head, wafting past the brim of his hat and down his chin as he blew smoke from his nose and out his mouth. He looked up stream and down, searching for the tell tale signs he’d memorized, thinking as he looked further on down stream, away from the large boulders to his left, that the spot was very near. He pulled on the reins, shifting his horse to his right, walking his horse over the pebbles and rocks that lined the banks until he came to the area he knew for certain was the spot he had chosen. Here the ground was softer, not so many rocks, and there, just under a large overhang was the marker he left behind on the ground. Three flat rocks about the size of his palm each, lined up and pointing in the direction where he had dug.

Throwing his cheroot down on the ground, Craddock got off his horse and pulled a small lantern from his pack. He lit a match and set fire to the wick, lowering the flame until he had the right amount of light he needed. Sliding down the glass chimney and pushing up on the handle, Craddock carried the light toward his burial spot and sat it down on the ground. He dropped to his knees, pushing his hat back off oily light brown hair, his thin face beaming with anticipation over the prospect of feeling the cold hard cash in his thin hands once again.

Long fingers began to dig into the soft soil, sifting and pawing, dirt and debris piling up with every scoop. He dug until his fingers began to bleed, until his face began to contort with rage. Fury overcame him, his fingernails ripping to the quick with each thrust as he tore away at the earth, finding…nothing.

He leaned over, his arms outstretched, swiping at the ground coverage, sweeping it away furiously, thinking, wondering if he had gotten it wrong. Craddock sat up, his teeth gnashing as he swept the area with his eyes, glinting hatefully in the night, the light blue coloring turning dark and evil as his soul screamed out in frustration and evil tormented possession came forth in the form of an hideous malevolent howl.

The money, all of it, was gone. Craddock made fists with his hands and pounded the earth until he thought he might break his hands from doing so. He got up, stormed over to his horse who shied away, backing up fearfully from the demented visage that grabbed, yanking on the reins when his bloody fingers finally got a hold of them, throwing himself up onto his saddle without the use of his stirrup. Craddock whipped the horse’s head around, racing off into the night, heedless of the dangers to man or beast, hell bent on revenge, bloodlust killing his one and only thought, for he blamed the Lancers for his troubles and in his mind, they were going to pay and pay dearly for taking what he thought was his property. Not caring one bit if they were the ones who found the loot, for there was no way at this point to know for sure. One way or the other, he would get his money. If that meant killing every last one of them and prying the money from their cold dead hands, then so be it.

 

Part 37

“Come on! Keep ‘em movin’ boys, keep ‘em movin’! Hiyah! Get a move on, that’s it, steady now, steady now! Git ‘em in the pens!” Ray Corbett’s blue roan pranced warily, dodging cattle horns as the Lancer stock was herded into the Stockton stockyards. The hour was late, but there were always men on duty at this time of the year, ready at a moments notice to open the gates and help any crew who made their deadline or came thronging in earlier or later than expected.

The Lancer stock was not only on time according to Dub Wilson, but at least four days early based on Maxwell Taylor’s notes concerning this particular arrival of beeves. Spotters stood on either side of the gates, some standing while others sat on top of the rails, all of them counting as the cattle entered the yard. Later when the crew was done, Dub would calculate the numbers and estimate the size and weights of the cattle after inspection, all to be reconciled on the morrow and sent to Mr. Taylor’s office first thing. The rest of the night would be tiring for the men who’s job it was now, to separate the cattle, recount, weigh and sort by size, those cows that would be shipped to Chicago and those that would be sold off to the local butchers and restauranteurs of Stockton’s finest restaurants and smaller eateries.

Hours later when the cattle were penned, the gates closed, a tired and smiling Johnny, glad the job was done, at least the hard part in his estimation, stood patiently next to Ray as Dub Wilson made his way over to both of them. The tall lean man wore a gray striped suit with a bowler hat on his head and a pencil stuck over his left ear. He smiled at both dust-covered men, not knowing exactly which one was Mr. Lancer for they both looked to be nothing more than range weary cattle drovers, small town drifters without a penny to their name, neither the image of a self important cattle baron as he was lead to believe by Mr. Taylor’s description. He had expected a much older, taller, more sophisticated sort of man if he was to believe that either one of these two cowboys was indeed, the Murdoch Lancer of the San Joaquin Valley.

One stood craggy and tall, slightly older, a cheroot hanging limply from his lips, while the younger man with the splash of bright pink or red, Dub couldn’t tell which, stood carelessly beside him. As he walked up to them, Dub extended his hand in welcome, never the type of person to just assume that whom he was meeting wasn’t in fact who or what he was lead to believe. Dub had made that mistake many times long ago when he was young and brash, full of self importance, his hard learned lesson in judging a book by its cover an indelible mark upon his memory when he thought of the jobs he had lost or nearly lost all because he had offended some rich man who didn’t dress or talk the way he supposed he should have.

“Dub Wilson gents,” he said, taking first Ray’s hand in his own, shaking with a firm grip before extending his welcome to the young man standing next to Ray.

Ray shook the stockyard manager’s hand saying, “Howdy, name’s Ray Corbett.”

“Glad to meet you,” Dub replied, his eyes shifting to Johnny.

Johnny held out his hand and Dub took it, “Johnny Lancer,” he heard the boy say.

Any surprise that Dub may have felt finding out that the man who wore what he now realized was a very faded and dusty red shirt upon closer inspection, hid his astonished reaction with well-practiced ease to hearing that this young boy was a Lancer. The boy was dark, raven-haired and not nearly the image he expected for the son of a Scotsman. In his mind he had expected a lighter complexioned, slightly older version of what he thought the son of Murdoch Lancer would have looked like.

Shoving these thoughts aside, Dub smiled, no matter the coloring or age of this boy, money was money and the Lancer beef having arrived meant that his payday was going to be a good one. He wasn’t there to judge, nor did he want to. He handed Johnny the preliminary paperwork of counts, “Good job Mr. Lancer. As far as we can tell, the herd looks to be fit and I should have your final tallies first thing tomorrow morning in Mr. Taylor’s office. He’ll be expecting you once he receives the notice of arrival.”

“Thanks Mr. Wilson,” Johnny took the paper from the stockyard manager with the preliminary counts, folding it several times before putting it in the waist of his pants.

“We’ll be over at the Cattleman’s Hotel if you need to reach me for anything,” Johnny told the elder man, shaking his hand one last time before Dub Wilson took his leave and left Johnny and Ray standing alone together.

Johnny swatted Ray on the stomach with the back of his hand, “Don’t know about you but I could do with a hot meal, a soak in the tub and soft pillow under my head.”

“Sounds mighty fine Johnny. Think I’m gonna hit the saloon first, you wanna join me?”

Johnny placed his hands on his hips, looking down at the ground, thinking on what it was he did want to do first. His first thoughts went to his friend Jelly who was most likely just getting into town with the chuck wagon. Shaking his head he said, “You go on Ray, I’m gonna check on Jelly first and make sure he gets the wagon settled in. If he’s of a mind too, we’ll join you later or see you tomorrow.”

Ray smiled, his older dark brown eyes crinkling with respect for the boy beside him with his head bowed, still thinking of his crew, caring about the comfort of an old man who was more than capable of taking care of his responsibilities without the aid of Johnny. Ray placed a rough calloused hand on Johnny’s shoulder and the boy looked up at him from beneath the brim of his hat, “That’s one of the things I like about you kid. You’re always thinking of others. You want me to help out?”

Johnny grinned, liking the deep baritone timbre of Ray’s voice, the salt and pepper hair and thick mustache that covered his upper lip. He appreciated the fact that Ray was willing to forego his personal time and help out, but he wasn’t about to let that happen. Johnny knew he didn’t need the help so there wasn’t any real reason to prolong Ray’s decision to have a drink before going to the hotel. “I appreciate the offer Ray, I really do. But you go on and I’ll see ya later. Jelly’s most likely at the livery now so it won’t take long to get things settled in for the night.”

“Alright. You take care and stay out of trouble,” Ray told him seriously, one eye squinting hard at Johnny as he pulled a drag on his cheroot.

“I don’t expect to find any trouble but I’ll mind your advice,” Johnny replied knowing that Ray only meant well by his remark.

“Alright then, I’ll be seein’ ya later or tomorrow if you get the hankerin’ to call it a night afore I’m done gettin’ liquored up and turn in.” With that said, Ray turned and sauntered out of the stock yard, leaving Johnny on his own, hoping the young man would take him up on his offer to have a drink.  The trip had been long and arduous and Johnny had lived up to his responsibilities like he was born to it. A feat that even the most seasoned trail boss would have found difficult given Johnny’s circumstances and background. Ray was proud of him, his loyalty to the young man forever sealed now that he had shown his true worth and determination to succeed, putting his men first, his self last. The latter, a tribute to who Johnny was as a man and the natural leader he would someday make of himself if he continued to follow in his father’s footsteps.

Johnny stayed behind for several minutes, gathering his thoughts before going off to find Jelly. He walked to the enclosure that held his father’s beeves, listening to the men who called out numbers for a second time into the night, unseen from his vantage point, yet clear in his mind as he crossed his arms on the top rail of the pen and took in a deep breath. The cattle lowed, snorting now and then through their big soft noses, some ramming their horns along the rails, while others stood quietly by, the scrape of their hooves upon the ground the only sound to come from their exhausted trail driven legs as they shifted from one weary leg to the next.

He looked up into the night sky, the dazzling brilliance he was accustomed to seeing from his home, dim and faded by the cast of bright lights glowing from a city too large and too uncomfortable for all its conveniences for him to enjoy overmuch. Johnny craved the dark open spaces of Lancer at night, the gentle breezes that blew across the land, the smell of sweet grass, sparkling rivers and streams, the rustle of leaves through the boughs of the old oak trees and cottonwoods that dotted the landscape and shaded the house from the summer heat.

Johnny closed his eyes, imagining that he was back there again, letting his mind envision for the first time in weeks what it was that he had come to love about all that he now had in his life. He imagined his father, tall and strong, a force to be reckoned with and a constant source of anguish whenever they didn’t get along. He longed for Murdoch’s acceptance and love; feeling much closer to having that dream come true after their last conversation. Right now he’d give just about anything he thought to go at it with his father if that was all Murdoch had to give. Wanting, needing to hear his voice even if it was demanding him to do something he didn’t want to do or reprimanding him for something he did do. Either way, his father would be there for him and Johnny missed him and needed him in his life more than ever.

Scott came to mind next. Tall and fair colored just like their father, only milder in temperament, a quick easy smile never very far away. He was the buffer, the referee, the friend and brother he had always imagined, only better because Scott was real and not a figment of his imagination or a childish wishful hope that might never come true. His steadfast loyalty and devotion to Johnny unnerved him at times, making him feel guilty and undeserving of such a wonderful person in his life. Scott was one of the true blessings that Johnny forever worried and fretted over, feeling most times like life was playing one of its cruel jokes on him again. He feared that at any given minute he would wake up and find that Scott was nothing more than a dream; a vision that was conjured up by his desire to stave off the loneliness and despair that gripped his heart when he thought he walked this earth alone, with no one to care.

Opening his eyes and darting them toward the night sky above, the velvety midnight blue reminded him of Teresa. Her love and trust in him shined brightly like the stars above Lancer. Though it was warm outside, Johnny shivered involuntarily, his hands aching to touch her slim waist, so small and tiny he could very near span it with his two hands. Closing his eyes, he could almost feel the wisp of her hair as it wafted gently against his face when she laid her head upon his shoulder and hugged him tight, her hands caressing his back with feather light touches that made him want to melt into her with each and every stroke. He loved her more than words could say, more than he could allow himself to feel before he had a chance to tell his father of his feelings for her.

Sighing and feeling the lateness of the hour, Johnny brought himself out of his reverie reluctantly, needing to get to Jelly and help him with the wagon if he was here yet. Pushing off the railing, Johnny made his way down the street to where the livery was, glad to see that there was a light shining through the open doors, thinking Jelly had to be here by now since the place was lit up and clearly open.

As he passed by the corral, he could just make out the mules that had pulled the wagon and smiled when he heard Jelly and his cantankerous voice shouting from within. He pulled the door open and stepped inside the large building, not seeing Jelly but hearing him rustling inside the wagon as he cursed a blue streak and banged what sounded like pots and pans from one side of the wagon to the other, looking for what he didn’t know.

“Hey Jelly! You in there?” Johnny called out.

“Course I’m in here ya dang fool,” Jelly retorted. The old man pushed aside the canvas tarp at the back of the wagon and stuck his head out glaring at Johnny and feeling meaner the more the boy grinned at him. “Well you just gonna stand there or are you gonna help and old man find his boots?” Jelly asked his tone irritated to say the least.

Johnny laughed, grabbing his hat when it threatened to land on the floor, doubling over with mirth at Jelly’s predicament. “How come you don’t have your boots on Jelly?” Johnny asked when he finally settled down and stopped laughing so hard.

“You try ridin’ in this here dang blasted furnace on wheels and see iffen you don’t take yer boots off too, smart aleck.”

Johnny bit back a grin and took off his hat, hanging it on a peg just outside the back of the wagon, “Where did you last see ‘em Jelly?” Johnny asked, thinking he was being helpful.

“On my feet dat burn it, where do you think I last saw ‘em?”

Johnny nearly fell off the back of the wagon as he tried to climb up and help Jelly look for his boots with that last comment. His laughter rang out and Jelly swatted him on the shoulder with his cap. Johnny warded off the swat with his arm and continued up to the bed of the wagon, doing his best to not laugh with every step he made.

In the back of the wagon, Johnny stood staring at the mess the older man made of his supplies, searching with his eyes for Jelly’s boots with his hands on his hips, not knowing where to start first. “Well, you just gonna stand there or are ya gonna help me?” Jelly asked.

“I’m lookin’, I’m lookin’” Johnny repeated, glancing around and then bending over to search through the upturned provisions and equipment of the cook wagon. After a few minutes he stood back up and asked, “Did you leave ‘em on the front floorboard Jelly?”

 

Jelly was on his knees and he looked up incredulously at Johnny, his lips pursed sarcastically at what he thought was the most ludicrous question he had ever heard, “Do I look daft?” He waited for an answer and Johnny, realizing that he was expecting one shook his head no, fearing for his life if he answered with a yes, biting the inside of his mouth to keep from laughing again when Jelly huffed and returned to his search.

They looked and looked to no avail, the boots were gone and nowhere to be found with either of them searching the wagon from top to bottom. “They have to be here!” Jelly shouted. “I’m sure I tossed ‘em back here right after I took ‘em off!”

“Calm down Jelly, we’ll find ‘em and even if we don’t, we’ll just get you a new pair,” Johnny tried to reason.

Jelly shook his gray head, his forehead puckering with frustration as beads of sweat began to run down his temples. He plopped down onto the floor of the wagon, bringing his knees up and planting his elbows solidly on top of them. “They were my best boots Johnny. I had ‘em broke in nice an’ pretty as you please.”

Johnny squatted down in front of his friend, feeling sorry for his loss. It was hard work busting in a new pair of boots and he could relate to Jelly’s feelings on the matter, having had his favorite pair stolen from him once before and thinking he would never get them back. He had gotten them back, but only after he had spent two weeks trying to break in a new pair that left him with blisters for more time than he cared to go through ever again.

Putting a hand on Jelly’s arm and feeling the heat from all their effort, Johnny asked, “You got your canteen back here? You look like you could use a drink and I know I could.”

With his head lowered in dejection, Jelly waved toward the right side of the wagon and said, “It’s hangin’ outside.”

Johnny patted his arm and stood up, “Be right back then. We’ll have a drink and then we’ll look one more time. Okay?”

“Won’t do no kind a good. They’re lost and I’m gonna have to traipse all through town with just my socks on, lookin’ fer a new pair. A man cain’t have no pride when he ain’t got no boots.” Jelly was dejected and forlorn, nothing Johnny could say right now was going to make him feel any better. The loss of his boots was more important than Johnny realized to Jelly. The boots had been a present to him not long after he had come to Lancer, gifted to him by Murdoch when he had finally repaid his debt and had been asked to stay on, the reason given that he was now a friend as well as one of the hardest working men Mr. Lancer had ever hired.

The compliment had overjoyed him as well as the prospect of being able to stay where he knew he was loved and accepted for who he was. Working at Lancer had given him the friends and family he never expected to have in his old age and having Johnny there as well only added to his pleasure, for the boy was like a son to him and he could not imagine life without him now.

Johnny left Jelly sitting there, jumping down to the ground from the bed with ease. He made his way around the wagon and there hanging near the seat was the canteen he was looking for. Johnny grabbed it off the hook and just for the heck of it, decided to check the front floorboard under the seat just in case Jelly had missed seeing his boots lying there. He slung the canteen strap over his shoulder and climbed up the wagon wheel, peering under the seat while he hung on precariously to the corner edge of the wagon.

He shoved aside a few small boxes and a tin cup, unable to see a darn thing. Johnny shoved his hand under the seat and swiped into the nothingness, feeling seconds later the soft pliable leather of two very shiny, spit polished black boots just under his fingertips. Standing on the toes of his boots, Johnny stretched and pulled Jelly’s boots to where he could see them, grabbing them up with a mischievous smile on his face and thanking Jelly’s lucky star they hadn’t fallen out of the wagon as Jelly most likely thought they had at this point.

Climbing down, Johnny hitched the canteen strap back onto his shoulder after it slipped down, and carried the boots to the back of the wagon. Deciding to have a little fun, he peered around the corner and saw Jelly right where he left him, his head bowed onto his arms, his toes curling and uncurling as he thought upon his missing boots.

Without making a sound, Johnny walked silently to the door of the livery and set Jelly’s boots down in the open doorway, leaving them sitting there with the toes pointed toward the chuck wagon. Grinning, Johnny stepped back and rubbed his hands together, excitement running rampant as he imagined the look on Jelly’s face when he saw them.

He walked back to the end of the wagon and climbed in, never saying a word about finding Jelly’s boots. Taking the canteen off his shoulder, Johnny nudged Jelly in the arm with it, his face unreadable when the wrangler looked up. “Have a drink Jelly.”

Jelly took the canteen from him, uncorking it with the saddest face Johnny thought he had ever seen. When Jelly was through with his drink, he passed the canteen back to Johnny who also took a long swallow before pushing the cork back in. “Come on Jelly. Let’s go to the hotel and first thing tomorrow morning we’ll go out and get you the sweetest, best new pair of boots Stockton has to offer. My treat. What do yah say?”

Jelly looked him in the eyes and said, “Don’t want a new pair of boots Johnny. I want my boots. They were special.”

Johnny almost caved in and told Jelly about his boots then and there, but the excitement of seeing the look on Jelly’s face was too much to resist so he held it together and kept his little secret for the time being. He stood up and put his hand out to Jelly, helping the old man to his feet. “Yah know Jelly, if you don’t say anything, I don’t think anyone will even notice that you ain’t wearing any boots at all.”

Jelly looked down at his white socks and grimaced, “You’re so full of horse hocky yah ought to join the circus,” Jelly remarked not the least appeased by Johnny’s statement.

Johnny laughed and they both climbed down off the wagon, tying the canvas and shutting off the back of the wagon. When they turned around, Johnny made sure that he was right in front of Jelly until they were almost to the doorway. Then he stepped aside and said, “Well would yah looky there, wonder where they’ve been all this time? You suppose they heard your grumblin’ and decided to walk back here all by themselves? They sure are pointed in the right direction.”

Jelly’s bottom lip came up and he huffed through his nose, his whiskers shaking as he shoved at Johnny, storming past him and picking up his boots with quaking hands. “You think you’re real slick don’t cha?” Jelly padded over to a hale bale and sat down, yanking on his boots one at a time, glaring at the boy who thought he was so funny.

“Where’d yah find ‘em?” Jelly asked without looking up.

“Under the seat when I went to get the canteen,” Johnny replied, “I asked yah if you looked there.”

Jelly stood up, stomped his feet hard on the ground, brushing one boot at a time on the back of his pant legs before feeling like things were back to normal again. Pointing a finger at Johnny he said, “You owe me a beer for bein’ such a wise guy.”

Johnny walked up to him and threw an arm around his shoulders, “Not a problem Jelly. Anything to put the smile back on that handsome face of yours.”

They walked off together, Johnny laughing with Jelly saying, “Now that’s two yah owe me. Keep it up boy. Afore yah know it, I’ll have yah buying me the whole darn place before we leave.”

Their voices trailed off into the night like so much stardust in their wake, one young, one old, one boyishly laughing and one gruffly amused, content with their mutual friendship and camaraderie, both looking forward to going home, both grateful for their own reasons that Jelly’s boots had been found.

*************************************

Johnny and Jelly made their way to the saloon, arms slung over each other’s shoulders. The bright lights and smoky interior didn’t hamper their desire or need for a beer after their long trek to Stockton. They were both tired but the adrenaline spiked once they were among the rowdy crew who were drinking it up, playing cards or dancing with the saloon girls.

Johnny dropped his arm from around Jelly, pushing through the batwing doors with a smile on his face when he saw Charlie up on top of a wooden table, a pitcher of beer in his hand, held to his face with his head tipped back, guzzling for all he was worth as several of the hands whooped it up around his table, encouraging him to down it without coming up for air.

The young man finished, held his pitcher out for inspection and the roar and laughter increased tenfold. A piano player in the far corner, white shirt and black suspenders, with a flat crowned hat upon his head, turned his head over his shoulder and smiled at the melee, his fingers running rampant on the ivory keys as he stepped up the tempo of the music and laughed along with the rest of the men when Charlie made as if to faint, his friends and comrades around the table, catching him in their arms as he fell backward.

The saloon girls, of which there were plenty, squealed with delight and surrounded Charlie when the men set him upright on his wavering drunken feet. Johnny looked over to Jelly and the older man just rolled his eyes at him, grabbing the sleeve of Johnny’s shirt, leading him to where Ray stood idly by at the bar with one elbow resting casually upon the surface, a glass of beer held lightly in his left hand.

“Glad to see you boys made it,” Ray remarked when Johnny and Jelly finally made their way through the throng of cowboys and painted ladies, all of them calling out a drunken greeting as they saw the pair passing by them.

“Last time I looked, you was the boy and I was the man, Ray,” Jelly commented dryly plopping his elbows onto the bar as he turned his back to it and watched the Lancer crew party it up with the town regulars and the ladies of questionable reputation.

“No need to get offended Jellifer Hoskins. Just glad to see yah made it here in one piece. You bein’ older an all…well I worry yah know,” Ray told him, a teasing smile in his dark eyes.

“You can shut yer trap anytime Ray. Them other fellas might take your sass but I’m not,” Jelly retorted without looking at the lead drover.

Johnny, who was standing between them with his back to the bar as well, laughed under his breath. He turned his head over his shoulder and ordered up two beers when the bartender asked him what they wanted.

When the man obliged him, Johnny and Jelly turned to the bar and picked up their cold beers, both taking a long healthy swig of brew before they turned back to the antics before them.

The room was shrouded in a smoke filled haze and the men who celebrated looked as if the party would last all night. There weren’t many who were seated, as all of them laughed and drank their beers or whiskey, some with their arms around bright colored women who danced and kissed them with every turn of the melody that was being pounded out by the piano player.

One such woman, vivid and colorful in a short red velvet dress, trimmed with black wispy feathers, fishnet stockings and high-heeled boots, sauntered seductively toward Johnny. Dark rich thick curls were piled precariously atop her head, held together by rhinestone combs, satiny ribbons and multicolored feathers. Her hands were splayed on her swaying hips and her pouty mouth was painted blood red, puckered and glossy smooth as she sashayed her way to stand in front of Johnny.

The woman ignored the two older men on either side of him, her chestnut colored eyes offering secret promises that no man in her past had ever resisted. She stood before him, her feline gaze unbroken by the feel of the cold beer mug pressing into the cleavage of her bosom, unflinching when the condensation around the mug, dripped tiny droplets of water down her cleavage.

Johnny looked down at the glass in his hand, a slow smile spreading on his face beneath the brim of his hat. His eyes traveled slowly from his hand to the luscious mounds of her breast, her lily-white chest to the black and white cameo fastened around her slim patrician neck. There his eyes stopped, his black inky lashes closing and opening upon his cheeks, body taut with desires he did not want to feel coursing through his veins. The Devil tempting him, goading him to do something he would regret forever should he act upon the carnal demands of his body.

“Like what you see cowboy?” the woman asked running her tongue across her lips.

Johnny lifted his head, his dark blue eyes crinkling with suppressed humor for the woman’s blatant question and obvious designs on his person. From the corner of his eyes he saw that Ray shifted his stance, his gaze full on them, unembarrassed by his brazen eaves dropping, waiting to hear what Johnny would say. Jelly too had turned away, harrumphing into his beer mug as he faced the bar, the large mirror behind the saloonkeeper giving him bull’s eye view of the entire scene as it played out.

Listening with all ears, Jelly heard Johnny say very quietly and with a boyish tone, “Wouldn’t be a man ma’am, if I didn’t.”

The madam of the saloon raised a painted fingernail under Johnny’s chin and lifted his head until his eyes were off her chest and looking straight at her, “The name’s Mary sugar and I got more to show yah if yah got the cojones to enjoy the ride.”

When he didn’t answer right away, Mary pushed the brim of his hat back with one long red fingernail, slowly, seductively, then ran both her hands down the sides of his face, her fingers tingling when she got to the dark coarse hair that covered his cheeks.

Jelly coughed, spluttering into his mug, his eyes darting to the unmoving boy next to him. When his aging eyes returned to his beer, he felt a hand on his right shoulder and looked over to see that Ray had moved beside him, “Come on Jelly, lets you and me find a table and give these two a little privacy. What do yah say?”

He turned to Johnny who hadn’t moved or said a word, seeing his adams apple move up and down in his throat as he drank his beer without taking his eyes of the hussy standing in front of him. Without a signal from Johnny to the otherwise, he assumed the boy could take care of himself and nodded an affirmative to Ray. The two men walked off, much to Jelly’s disgust at having to do so just because some fallen angel had set her sights upon Johnny.

Mary watched them leave from the corner of her eyes, secretly glad that they were gone. She wanted this man with every fiber of her being, sensing that he could take her to heights she had never been before if she could get him to follow her up the stairs for the night.

Alone save for the raucous men who were minding their own business and taking special delight with her entourage of girls, Mary got bolder with her moves, sliding one long leg up against Johnny’s, her hands moving to his shoulders, squeezing, massaging them as her gaze remained locked with his. “You have the purtiest eyes I ever did see honey. Blue like the ocean on a clear sunny day.”

She leaned her head toward his, ornate black-dangling earrings sparkling in the light, her mouth poised for a kiss as she moved her lips closer to his, mere inches from his beautiful mouth before she felt his hands, firm upon her waistline. She wondered at his quickness, the sudden loss of his beer as he set it upon the counter before taking her into the palms of his hands. She thought at first his movement was to take control, to be the aggressor, but she was wrong and knew it instantly when he effectively put a distance between them that left no room for argument that he did not intend for things to go any further than they had.

With her hands planted firmly on her hips she said to him, “I know you can’t be made out of stone cowboy. I can see that you’re interested.” She stepped closer, not quite as close as before and continued, “If you just let me in honey, I could turn your world a whole different shade of blue. I can be your sunshine and your peace all in one little package.” Mary splayed her hands across her belly, pushing her breast up enticingly, encouraging the dark haired stranger to change his mind.

Johnny licked his lips and reached behind him for his beer. He drank a long swallow, his eyes never leaving her face. When he was done, still holding his glass he said, “I appreciate the offer Mary. Really I do,” he said apologetically, “I’m sure you could turn my world upside down if I was of a mind to let you. But I’m not of the mind to and I wouldn’t be no kind of man if I let you.”

Mary sidled up next to Johnny, her hands gripping his right arm, batting her long eyelashes at him. “Then how ‘bout a kiss honey, just for my sake? Otherwise I might get to thinkin’ I ain’t got it in me no more.” She stood on tiptoe, still clutching his arm, Johnny facing her so close she could smell the leather of his chaps, the tang of his manly scent, appreciating the hard corded muscles under the sleeve of his dusty shirt. Mary leaned in to kiss him on the mouth. She thought she was going to make it happen, only to have the unnamed stranger turn his head from her at the last minute, the kiss landing on the unshaven side of his face instead.

Ray had been watching from the table where he and Jelly sat. When he saw that Johnny had turned from the woman after all her determined efforts, he stood up after a quick look at Jelly and made his way across the room. His lean lanky body and long muscular legs strode across the saloon, the sound of his steps lost in the noise that surrounded him. He came up behind the woman grabbing her around the waist before she knew what was happening. He twirled her in his arms and when he got her several feet away from his disinterested boss, he broke the circle of his arms, taking her by the wrist and turning her toward him with a rough jerk.

Ray bent at the knees, his booted feet spread apart and pulled Mary into him, smiling at her as he grabbed her buttocks and ground their bodies together. “I need me some lovin’ woman. You interested or are you gonna keep diggin’ a well that’s already dried up?”

Mary glanced one last time at the dark haired man who leaned back against the bar, his beer mug held up in salute to her, a wide smile on his face before he sauntered off to join the elder man who sat alone at the table across the room from them. She turned back to the cowboy who had her in his arms, liking the deep resonating sound of his voice, her thoughts of the younger cowboy pushed to the back of her mind. This man was good looking too, older and not as young as she liked them, but strong and unyielding, just as demanding and lustful as she was.

She smiled up at him, “I like your voice. It gives me the shivers and makes me feel all tingly inside.”

Ray smiled down at her and gave her a smack on her velvet covered rump, “That’s a start darlin’. Now where’s your room?”

***************************************

The same day that Johnny arrived in Stockton, Val rode his horse along the riverbank, pulling up the collar of his shirt when a fine summer mist began to fall from the skies. Looking up as his horse picked his way over the rocks and fallen logs, he could see that the small amount of dark clouds would soon be passing by him. Up ahead, the skies were clear and paisley blue, the sun shining with a dazzling brilliance, the temporary reprieve from the heat, a joke from the Heavens when he realized he would be sweltering again in just minutes and most likely smelling something fierce as his wet and sweaty shirt dried upon his back.

He took out a bandanna and swore as soon as the sun glared down on him, wishing the cloud cover had stayed just a little longer. The sheriff swiped at his neck, wiping off the sweat and rain, readjusted his collar and pressed his horse on a little quicker. When he reached the bend of the river where large boulders lay near the waters edge, Val pulled on the reins and dismounted with a grunt. He lead Gringo to a shady copse of pine and ground tied him, not wanting to get any closer to the hiding spot where Cotton Eye Joe had found the bank’s stolen money.

Crouching down until he was flat on his belly, using his elbows and legs, Val maneuvered his way across the mossy undergrowth until he was in a position where he could see the area without being seen himself if there was anyone else around. He pulled out Scott’s long glass, pulling on it until it was completely elongated and ready for use. Putting it up to his right eye, he squinted his left and began to search around the riverbank until he found what he was looking for.

“Well I’ll be a son of a…” Val muttered under his breath. He swerved the spyglass in every direction and could find no sign that anyone was still there. Closing the instrument up and stuffing it back into the waist of his pants, Val scooted back until he was clear of the cover, grabbing Gringo’s reins when he stood up. He loped them around the horse’s neck and mounted the tan buckskin, leading the horse past the trees and into the clearing. Minutes later, veering away from the heavy tracks that were nigh impossible not to read, so heavy and chaotic were they, Val swung his leg over the back of his saddle and hopped down onto the ground.

He pushed the tattered hat off his forehead, short dark curls matted and heavy with sweat clinging to his skin as he crouched down on bended knee and observed the freshly dug hole in the ground. His keen eyes scanned the ground noting the pile of dirt beside it and the scattered debris and fingered brush marks in the soil, the whole area looking as if the ground had been ripped apart as opposed to having been simply dug into.

Reaching inside the hole he pulled out a lone shredded leaf, a spot of color catching his eye as he took in the entire scene and imagined for himself how it had played out in his mind if he had seen Craddock here, digging furiously, maddeningly when he realized the money sack was gone.

He fingered a bright color spot with the tip of his forefinger, brought the leaf up to his nose and sniffed. The copper smell of blood was tangy, pungent to his nose. Throwing the leaf aside, Val stood up and with his head bent, followed the tracks of a lone man who had gone to his waiting horse. The churned up dirt and deep hollows in the ground told him everything and the trail led off into the direction he had suspected all along. They led back to the area to where he and Terrance had lost the tracks in the first place. He kicked the ground cursing to no one but himself. “I got yah this time hombre.”

The tracks were fresh, barely half a day old. If it was Craddock that had come back for the money sack, and Val was sure that it was, he made no pretense of hiding his trail. As far as Val could see the prints were clear, easy to follow. He mounted Gringo and with a click of his tongue and press of his knees, he rode his buckskin away from the clearing, intent this time to find the elusive Craddock even if he had to go to Hell and back to do it.

 

Part 38

It was late, a little past midnight as Johnny soaked in a large white porcelain tub, head back, eyes closed. A flat metal tray was attached to the side rim and on it sat a bottle of tequila, half full, what was left of the other half resided in a near empty tumbler that Johnny gripped in a listless hand. With a slow deliberate motion, the glass tumbler was lifted off the tray and brought to his mouth. Johnny swallowed lazily, savoring the slow trail of fire that burned a path down his throat and settled warmly in the pit of his belly.

Soap bubbles, thick and fluffy white clung to the hairs of his chest and slid down his thigh in fat soapy mounds when he pulled up his knee up and steadied the glass upon it, his wet elbows resting comfortably on either side of the tub. The room was humid, relaxing, lulling him to near sleep just before he heard a tentative knock on the bathhouse door. He didn’t answer, nor did he open his eyes. Instead, Johnny ignored the knock and wished the sound that invaded his peace and quiet to simply go away.

The knock came again, more insistent and a little louder than the first time, accompanied by an aging voice, “Mr. Lancer, it’s me…Wayne Thornton, sir. You want some more hot water?”

When no answer came back to the elder man who ran the bathhouse attached to the hotel, he rapped his knuckles on the door again, calling out worriedly, “Mr. Lancer? …You ok in there? …Mr. Lancer?”

Exhausted eyelids pried themselves gradually open, languid blue eyes resting on the drink propped on his knee with aplomb. The glass was lifted unhurried and purposefully to his mouth, silently wishing the thoughtful man to leave, not caring one way or the other if he stayed the night right where he was, cold water or no. When the glass touched his lips and another ‘Mr. Lancer’ could be heard from behind the locked door, Johnny whispered tired and slightly inebriated into his glass, “Go away,” the words unheard by the increasingly irritated caretaker.

Wayne Thornton gave up after several minutes, grumbling under his breath as he walked down the carpeted hallway, annoyed for having received no answer to his calls through the door, “Fine with me then. Guess you can just soak in a cold tub and…” His voice trailed off when he passed through another doorway into the main parlor of the hotel.

Johnny swallowed the last of the tequila and set his glass down on the tray, scooting down further in the tub until he was barely above the surface of the tepid water. He laid his head back, closed his eyes against a freshly shaved face and fell asleep, dreaming of nothing and no one, oblivious to the world outside the room.

It would be an anxious hour and a half later that Wayne Thornton would see the young man walking sleepy eyed to his room, a towel slung carelessly over one shoulder, his gun belt over the other, saddlebags thumping against the edge of the steps with each exhausted step he climbed to the second level.

*************************************

Behind a small wooden desk sat a smartly dressed, brown haired woman, with soft honey colored eyes, and an easy smile on her face as she worked. When she didn’t appear to know that he was there, Johnny coughed into his hand and was rewarded when the woman looked up at him and smiled a warm enough welcome, her surprise quickly hidden when she realized he must have been standing there for some time as she dwelled mindlessly on her bookwork.

“Good morning,” she said kindly. “May I help you with something?”

“I’m here to see Mr. Taylor,” Johnny said.

The middle-aged woman looked down at her papers and shuffled some of them to the side, smiling when she pointed to a name written down on a line in what looked to be a ledger of some sort.

“You must be Mr. Lancer,” she stated with a crisp intelligent voice.

“Yes ma’am, I am.”

“Good. Mr. Taylor is expecting you. Won’t you please have a seat?” the woman asked, standing up and coming around the desk to point at a bench along the wall. “I’ll just let Mr. Taylor know that you are here.”

“Thank you,” Johnny said taking a seat.

Johnny pulled his hat off his head and held it in his fingers between his knees as he waited. Soon the door in the back of the office opened and the woman from behind the desk went back to her seat. After she sat down, she propped her elbows on the desk and picked up her pencil, flicking it in her hands as she studied the young man across from her.

“You’re in Stockton much earlier than expected Mr. Lancer,” the woman remarked casually.

Johnny looked up from his hands, the hat he held between them suddenly finding life as Johnny began to twist it round and round between his fingers. “Yes ma’am,” was all he could think to say to the woman. He noticed that on her desk was a long flat piece of polished triangular wood with a brass nameplate attached on it. “You Mrs. Beasley?” he asked curiously.

“I am,” the woman answered with a wispy smile.

“What’s your first name?” Johnny asked.

“Ida May,” she told him.

Johnny nodded as if she had told him her whole life story just by giving him her name and so she smiled at him again. She thought the boy in front of her looked restless and ready to bolt if Mr. Taylor didn’t come get him real quick. Looking over to the corner of the room, Ida May got an idea and said, “I make very good coffee. Would you like some?”

Johnny’s glanced up, the hat twisting nervously the more he had to sit and wait. “Um, no ma’am.”

Ida May grinned; thinking the man in front of her was much younger than she previously thought Mr. Taylor’s friend was going to be. He looked to be freshly shaved and his clothes were clean, white pressed shirt embroidered down the front, black leather pants with silver conchos running down the legs. Ida May noted too, the dark heavy gun belt slung low and tied tight to his right leg, wondering at the way he wore it, not having much more than a vague remembrance of her long dead husband having worn one himself a time or two. Her Albert though had worn his gun high on his waist, and more than anything she remembered him complaining of the added weight and the foolish necessity of having to wear it in the first place when they first arrived in Stockton some twenty years earlier. City life made him give up his hated gun wearing and as a young woman in love, she remembered being quite happy about it and their life together.

The door to the back room opened and a man of about fifty years of age walked through it. His large frame and tall height filled the doorway. An imposing figure of a man dressed from head to toe in a black suit and white dress shirt. A black leather string hung around his neck, with a square silver motif holding it together upon his massive chest, the initials MT engraved on the center of it. Black shoes gleamed as he made his way across the floor to stand in front of Mrs. Beasley’s desk.

With his back to Johnny, who watched the thick black haired man set a fresh pile of papers on Ida May’s desk, he heard him ask, “You can tell Murdoch Lancer I will see him now.”

Mrs. Beasley leaned to the side ever so slightly and looked at Johnny questioningly then back to Maxwell Taylor, “He is right behind you sir,” she said quietly, pressing a dainty hand to her chest in surprise and sudden curiosity to the question.

Maxwell Taylor’s shoulders stiffened and he turned around, expecting to see his old friend Murdoch Lancer standing right behind him. But all he saw was a young boy sitting on the bench, who stood up when he turned to face him. Black obsidian eyes narrowed and the frown he wore deepened, causing new creases to form in his chiseled bear of a face.

The boy shifted his hat into one hand and held out the other. Maxwell ignored the outstretched greeting with a glare of heat directed at the imposter. “What’s the meaning of this Mrs. Beasley? This is not Murdoch Lancer,” he exclaimed, throwing the words over his shoulder without taking his eye off the boy in front of him.

Before Ida May was able answer, Johnny dropped his hand and spoke up, “I’m Johnny Lancer sir, Murdoch Lancer’s son.”

Maxwell Taylor studied the boy from head to toe, inspecting Murdoch’s son for what seemed like several long-suffering minutes, increasing the discomfort Johnny was feeling with each passing second, containing his desire to flee under the onslaught of the man’s intense scrutiny.

Maxwell spoke with a matter of fact tone in his voice, “I remember that name, young man. You must be Murdoch’s younger son…Maria’s boy.”

Johnny smiled shyly at the mention of his mother’s name and lowered his head, letting out a deep breath in the process, grateful that his father obviously told the man about him at one time or another. “Yes sir, I am,” he answered looking up at the man who was just as tall as his father if not more so, trying hard not to be intimidated by a man who looked as if he could pound him into the ground with one mighty blow of his fist.

An instant change came over Maxwell Taylor who had looked so daunting when he first entered the room. A smile spread across his rugged face, his teeth pearly white against his complexion, near black eyes twinkling and suddenly filled with a warmth that hadn’t been there just minutes before. He reached over and clasped Johnny’s hand in his big one, wrapping a well-muscled arm around his slim shoulders as he herded him to the back room, “Well I’ll be. The old codger finally found you. Or did you find him? When did you come home? Never mind, never mind, we have plenty of time for that. What I want to know first, is why your father isn’t here?” Maxwell asked, question after question, leading Johnny through the back doorway that led to the room that was his office.

Ida May smiled to herself when the door closed behind them, feeling half sorry for the young man who was having questions hurled at him one right after the other, knowing they would probably be lost in a world of news and gossip for at least the next two hours if Mr. Taylor had his way. She shifted the new pile of papers in front of her and as before started working on them intently, wondering in the back of her mind if the fidgety boy who had twisted his hat so nervously while he waited had the back bone to withstand the onslaught of questions and answers without going insane and shooting that dangerous looking gun of his he wore. Maxwell Taylor was the kindest man she knew, but the poor man could talk the ear off a sow and go for seconds if he wasn’t completely satisfied with the conversation or the answers he got.

**************************************

After a two and a half hour question and answer session recounting the past year to the cattle broker, Johnny sat stunned watching Maxwell Taylor as he wrote out two separate drafts at his request, one to be cashed as soon as he could get over to the bank and another, the balance of payment for the cattle that had been delivered, to be deposited at a later date by Murdoch when he took it to the Green River Bank.

“I’d feel a whole lot better if you’d let me transfer the money to the Green River Bank,” Maxwell tried for the umpteenth time. “This is probably a hell of a lot more money than your father expected.”

Johnny shook his head, “Murdoch said he wanted it brought directly to him,” he reminded again.

“Your father’s a stubborn cuss! Always was!” Maxwell retorted knowingly of his friend Murdoch. “I hope you’re good with that gun if you get waylaid on the way home. If it were me…I’d put the money in a bank and have it transferred.”

Johnny smiled because the man just didn’t give up.

Maxwell signed both drafts with a deft sure hand, his signature flowing across the papers in bold black ink, large and cursive, flowery looking to Johnny’s eye. “You tell that father of yours that I expect an invitation to the ranch. I want to meet your brother Scott and hear first hand everything that’s happened in the past year from his lips as well.”

“I will sir,” Johnny said, his belly doing flip flops as he watched the man pick up first one slip of paper and then the other, blowing on them with his breath to dry the ink.

“And stop calling me sir, God bless it! I’ve known your father since before you or Scott were a twinkle in his eye. I’m Uncle Max and don’t you go forgetting it!” The drafts were waved in the air, one in each hand, the movement as exaggerated as everything else about the man who was his father’s friend.

Every time Johnny saw the zeros on the largest check his chest would constrict and his breathing would hardly come. Maxwell Taylor was paying his family 13 times what they expected. According to him, the price of cattle was at an all time high and Murdoch was a very, very lucky man.

Johnny’s eyes, unflinching and remote, watched as Maxwell inserted the drafts into an envelope and closed the flap inside, handing it across the desk when he was done. He was nervous taking hold of so much money, but Johnny squelched the feeling and reached over steadily, taking the envelope from the man in front of him without ever letting on how nervous he really was or how sweaty his palms felt.

He stuffed the manila envelope into his pocket and stood up on unsteady feet, hoping this big bear of a man didn’t see the nerve-wracking impulses that were shooting up through his spine and causing his head to suddenly hurt. Johnny wiped his hands down the side of his hips, hoping to dry his palms before shaking the man’s hand as he came around the corner of his desk.

Johnny held out his hand and Maxwell Taylor took it in his. He didn’t shake it however; instead, Maxwell pulled Johnny to him, giving him a big bear of a hug, unexpected and surprising to Johnny who had only met the man just a few hours ago.

They pulled apart and Maxwell said, “I expect that invitation son, very soon. So don’t let your father forget. Understand?”

“Yes sir,” Johnny said taking a step back.

“What was that young man?” the giant man asked.

Johnny swallowed; feeling like the afternoon was extraordinary and surreal in this man’s presence, “Yes, Uncle Max.” It felt odd saying the words, but after the three hour interrogation into his family’s past and present Johnny could do no less than give the man what he wanted. Especially after he realized the amount of money he was being paid for the cattle. A surprise he hoped wouldn’t shock his father into and early grave when he presented the amount to him.

“Good! Good! That’s what I want to hear, Johnny boy,” Maxwell said clamping a hand on Johnny’s shoulder and leading him out the door they had come through, the same door that seemed to be the doorway into some kind of parallel universe.

Maxwell Taylor followed him into the front office and said one last goodbye before he left Johnny alone to get on his way. Johnny watched him disappear, the dark door closing behind him, cutting him off and leaving him feeling as if he had just come out of a whirlwind and had landed somewhere else, thousands of miles away. A part of him wished he could go back in there and spend more time with the man who was his father’s old and dear friend, a man who surprised him by letting him know that he had met his mother once, surprising him even further when he had nothing but kind words and stories to tell about her in spite of what he knew she had done by taking him away from Murdoch.

As he stood staring at the black door, Ida May said quietly from her desk, “He’s very special, isn’t he?”

Johnny put his hat on his head and turned to her saying quietly, reverently, “Yes he is…very special.” He put his fingers to his hat and tipped it at the lady behind the desk, “Ma’am,” he said, turning and leaving without another word, finding it difficult to say anything for fear of getting choked up and looking like an idiot for wanting to stay longer and for wanting to hear more. It wasn’t often that he heard anything about his mother, even from Murdoch. Though he had lived with Maria for ten years, he found himself fascinated by the stories that Maxwell told, craving them with a ravenous hunger he couldn’t deny or hope to alleviate anytime soon, thankful for the gift of Maxwell’s telling, worth more to him than all the monies he had in his pocket.

*************************************

Johnny exited the bank with a grateful sigh that things had gone well cashing the payroll draft. He’d asked Maxwell for it specifically so he wouldn’t have to cash the much larger one knowing there would be no way he could carry that kind of cash on his person all the way home in the form of paper currency.

With his payroll cashed and his own personal banking attended to, Johnny walked down the street to the postmasters and sent off a telegram to his father. He informed Murdoch and his family that he and Jelly were on their way home and should be there within three days if all went well and the weather held out. If the trip went without incident he figured on them getting home on or around the Saturday the ninth.

The only thing left to do now, was to pay his men. He found them waiting gathered round the chuck wagon lined up with eager smiles on their faces, some more worse the wear because of a long night of drinking and romping with the saloon girls. Jelly had the ledger ready, pencil in hand as Johnny counted out payroll to each man and Jelly noted it in the book. Some took all their pay in one lump sum while others took only a portion and told Johnny to save the rest on account for them to put in the bank later when they got home.

The men would be on their own now for the next several days, and as Johnny had heard his father say once before at the end of their first cattle drive together, he called out, “That’s it …last call. You men remember what Murdoch said, It’s not the cattle drive that separates the men from the boys, it’s the town at the end of the trail. So… look out for each other, look out for yourselves and look out for all those grifters and crooks that are gonna be after you like shepherd are after fleece.”

 Johnny took off his hat, lifting it high above his head, wrapping an arm around Jelly’s shoulders and said loudly to all his men, “First round of drinks are on the house…so cut the wolf loose!” The crew whooped and hollered, clamping each other on the backs with laughter as they walked away to spend their pay.

Ray Corbett waited until all the men were gone to say, “You did good Johnny. I’m right proud to be working for yah.” Johnny smiled and hung his head, embarrassed by Ray’s high praise, until he heard Ray ask, “He ain’t half bad, is he Jelly?”

Jelly turned his head to look at Johnny and said with a whiskered grin, “Nope…he ain’t half bad. Guess I’ll have to tell the boss he’s gotta keep this one.”

Johnny pulled his arm from Jelly’s shoulder, smiling up at Ray as he squinted into the bright sunlight, shaking Ray’s hand, “Gracias amigo,” he replied sincerely, his discomfiture vanishing instantly with their good humor.

“You want Charlie to drive the chuck wagon back?” Ray asked making sure he had their plans right.

“Yep,” Johnny said. “Jelly’s going back with me and he’ll take his horse.”

“You sure you don’t want to let me ride along with yah? Just in case yah need my gun,” Ray asked seriously.

Johnny closed up the ledger, handing it to Jelly to put in his saddlebags and untied the flaps to the back of the wagon and closed the gate, “I’m sure Ray. You have a good time with the men. We can make it back just fine.”

Ray shrugged, he knew the boy could take care of himself but he had this weird premonition of sorts that kept niggling at the back of his head and thought it best to ride with them. Johnny had different ideas however and would hear none of it. Ray deserved a break just as much as the next man if not more so. He knew he wouldn’t have been able to pull off a drive like the one they just made if not for the steady influence and guidance of the man standing in front of him.

“I need yah to stick around here and make sure everyone makes it back in one piece,” Johnny told him seriously. Ray nodded his head, not pressing the issue, knowing the boy was right as they watched the rowdy men converge once more upon the saloon and the celebrating fair of hucksters and carnival folk who were always ready to lighten the pockets of the men who had just gotten paid.

The wagon was stored back into the livery and as Johnny and Jelly brought out their horses, Ray stood and shook both their hands, telling the two of them he would see them in about a week maybe more if they had any problems with the chuck wagon. None were expected but anything could happen on the trail and Ray was wise enough to realize this and not promise a time of arrival that was absurd for them to make.

When Ray walked off, Johnny turned to Jelly and asked, “You ready Jelly?”

“Got my boots on boy and my horse right here. Guess I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”

“Lets go home then,” Johnny said giving Jelly a squeeze on his shoulder.

Johnny gave Barranca a pat on his neck and mounted up, the horse sensing Johnny’s excitement, prancing on all fours when his master was settled into the saddle. Jelly grunted and got up into his saddle, his bay feeling the emotions too and sidestepping as he gathered up his reins. When Johnny saw that Jelly was settled, he grinned at the older man who smiled back and together they raced out of town, anxious to get back and make good time doing it.

**************************************

Val followed the tracks left behind by Bruce Craddock and his horse, all the while wondering at the foolishness of such an out and out blatant disregard to covering his tracks and wondering if he wasn’t riding straight into a trap set up by the varmint. He didn’t know if Craddock was working alone or if he had a group of men. Each time he had been to the sight where the money had been buried, the clues only showed one man on a horse leading away from the hole, same as the second time around. A fact that puzzled the scruffy sheriff and made him wonder why that was. He figured there should be two others maybe more after what the eyewitnesses had told him.

Val knew for a fact that Jake and Rusty Fletcher, two young men who had worked for Murdoch Lancer for only a few weeks were seen robbing the bank with the then unknown Bruce Craddock. He still had no actual proof that the leader was in fact Bruce Craddock but the odds were that is was.

The man was known from Texas to Central California for being a bank robber and a killer. Mentally, Val kicked himself over and over again for not being more on top of reading his wanted posters, instead of stacking them up like some kind of idiot. If it hadn’t been for Scott seeing that scarred face on the top of the stack he might never have found out who was behind the robbery. So far the bandit had been elusive and careful of where he was hiding out. The tracks had been followed as far as the trail would take him, only to be lost each and every time in the dried up streams and desert hot beds of the cliffs and canyons that were scattered throughout the entire region.

This time was no exception. The tracks led to the same exact spot where Val and Terrance had lost the trail before. When he reached the dried up stream bed, hard and unyielding of any sign, Val made the decision to get as close to the canyon walls as he could. In his mind, there was no way a man who had so blatantly left a clear track to follow could just up and disappear without there being a reason. He speculated that there must be something he was missing and the only alternative was to check the rock face for a hidden opening of some kind.

He pushed Gringo onward and got as close as his horse would allow following along the base of the cliffs, taking it slow and easy, checking behind every gnarled tree, brush and thicket that butted up against the rock face. It took him almost three hours of strenuous searching until he found what he had been looking for nearly five miles from where the tracks suddenly disappeared.

A large copse of bush and trees hid a four-foot fissure in the rock face. The passage was dark but there was a faint light at the other end that wasn’t visible unless a person happened to push away the foliage that covered the opening and peered carefully inside until the eyes adjusted to the dim interior of the slim passage.

Backing his way out Val took Gringo’s reins and led him away from the brush. He was going to check it out and leave his horse behind. The fissure wasn’t wide enough to turn around even if Craddock and his men were still there, so he opted instead to go it alone, hoping he wouldn’t be seen or heard if he happened upon the band of thieves on foot.

He ground tied his horse and pulled his gun, taking a deep breath before he entered the crack in the wall. Several feet into the fissure, he stopped and looked back. Bright sunlight filtered through the brush barely lighting his way in the beginning, he let his eyes adjust to the creeping darkness then stepped onward, silent as he could, hoping against hope that he didn’t trip or fall along the ruddy, hard to see path. His left hand kept him steady against the interior wall, his right hand pointing his gun in the direction of the exit, anticipating bad company at any given moment.

It took him several long minutes to edge his way to the sunlit opening at the opposite end of the fissure. When he got close enough, he bellied down on the ground and slithered his way to the edge of the sunlight, pulling his hat low until his eyes readjusted to the stark glare of the blinding sun just beyond the mouth of the opening. Before sticking his head completely out into the open, Val took a moment to listen for any sounds that might alert him to how many men might possibly be holed up in the small dried up hideaway. He heard nothing and edged closer to the line of sunlight just beyond his fingertips, pushing with his knees and the toes of his boots, while keeping a firm grip on the butt of his gun, cocked and ready to fire if needed. His elbows grated on the hard packed earth, his mouth twisting with a grimace when small sharp rocks pierced his skin and stung like nettles on his arms where his shirt was rolled up.

What he found by the time he could see normally again was that the place looked deserted of any inhabitation save the strewn garbage and chaotic mess that was left behind.  The sun was moving across the sky and well beyond the upper flats of the enclosed canyon, casting long streaks of shadows across half of what had been a camp at one time.  Sensing no danger and finding himself alone, Val got to his feet, pushing the brim of his hat off his forehead and surveyed the deserted encampment. With his gun still drawn, Val moved cautiously, warily to where the main part of the camp had been. Everywhere he looked there was evidence of a long stay. There were empty bottles of beer, some broken, some not, discarded tin cans that landed wherever they’d been tossed, scattered cooking utensils and a skillet that looked as if it had been thrown in a fit of anger, yards from where it should have been. He found a multitude of cigarette tips and empty pouches of store bought chew, balled up and littering the ground.

Val squatted by the campfire ring, pushing his fingers into the gray and black ashes. His fingers covered in soot, held a small amount of ash that he brought to his nose and sniffed. The smoky aroma still lingered, soft and easily powered between thumb and forefinger. Val laid his hand on top of the flaky bed feeling a remnant of warmth still lingering down deep in the thick pile of burned out wood.

Holstering his gun, Val rubbed his hands together and then wiped them down the side of his pants, removing the residual dust the best he could. He figured the bed of died embers was fresh enough to indicate that the fire had been lit as early as the night before.

Standing up he scanned the area with a knowing eye and walked his way around the camp, finding a spot some distance away where several horses had been line tethered, deciphering from the mounds of excretion there had to of been at least eight different horses. The tether line was still stretched from one gnarled juniper tree to another, while wooden steel strapped buckets lay haphazardly scattered from one end of the line to the other, all indicating to Val that he was dealing with a large group of men.

He thought he could account for at least three of them at this point, one being Bruce Craddock, the other two Jake and Rusty Fletcher, the others were still unknown faces and names but judging by the things that were left behind and the solid evidence of at least eight horses, he figured there had to be at least five other men. More than he could handle on his own, good as he thought he was with a gun, he wasn’t a fool and decided he would have to round up his posse once again for another search.

Taking off his hat and swiping his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt, Val made his way back to the campsite, searching the ground for any clues that might give him a lead. It was hard finding anything tangible to put his finger on. The ground was hard as a rock, solid with little dust or cover to spark even the smallest of hints his way, until he decided to check out the litter that covered the ground near what appeared to be objects the men used to seat themselves upon. Near a flat rock that sat three to four feet from a dying lone cedar, lay several small balls of paper, wadded up into tiny pieces of waste.

Bending over, Val picked them up and carefully opened them, spreading each one upon the flat surface of the rock, smoothing them out with the palm of his hand. One white sheet contained a picture or map of sorts, roughly drawn rectangles and squares with one or two words above each, house, barn, bunkhouse, tool shed, corral and others just like it, filling the page with a complete picture of what looked to be a drawing of a ranch setting. What intrigued him most was the fact that there were initials under several of the shapes. Val wasn’t a stupid man; in fact he was a lot smarter than most folks gave him credit for and it didn’t take a genius to figure out that three sets of initials matched the ones of the men he knew for sure were part of the band he was hunting for.

Val opened the next piece of paper that looked as if it had been torn from a newspaper. He flipped the page over and on one side were various ads for stoves and wagon wheel parts, farming implements and smithy tools. Nothing of value he thought since half of the ads were smudged or torn, until he turned it over again and saw the article on the opposite side.

The editorial that was originally on the inside of the wadded up ball detailed the soaring prices of cattle, comparing California’s San Francisco’s beef prices to that of Central and South Texas cattle. The difference in price was staggering. Texas beef, according to what he read, was selling for five to ten dollars a head while cattle prices in San Francisco were getting up to twenty times that much. Val lowered the paper in shaky hands and mentally calculated the sums in his head, thinking all the while about his friend Johnny who was delivering beef to Maxwell Taylor, wondering if the boy realized he was going to be in for a big surprise when he got paid for his herd. He didn’t figure Johnny would know about the rising prices and since his family was laid up before he left, he didn’t suppose they really knew about it either. Based on the article, the soaring prices were based on a sudden high demand from larger cities whose escalating growth dictated the unexpected increase seemingly overnight.

The article in and of its self wouldn’t have meant much to Val if it weren’t for the fact that the California prices were circled and the name Lancer was scrawled in bold lettering just off to the side with a date written underneath it, July 9th.  Val’s eyes furrowed and he grabbed the first unfolded sheet from underneath the one he was looking at. Rotating the picture until he had it angled the way he wanted it. Val squinted and studied the drawing, smacking his gums loudly when he finally figured out what it was he was looking for and what he found he didn’t like.
 

Part 39

Murdoch sat at his desk absentmindedly scratching at an itch he couldn’t reach through the thick layers of bandaging that encased his left arm. His mind dwelled on the Owens property and all the work that would need to be done once Terrance Littleton was paid in full and the land belonged to him and his sons.

Not for the first time did he wonder when Johnny would be getting home. As if in answer to his thoughts, the sound of thundering hoof beats vibrated into the great room through the open French doors. The day was late and he wasn’t expecting anyone to arrive at this hour. Murdoch pushed his chair back and was just about to round the corner of his desk when Andy Clark came running through the doorway as if he had standing invitation to enter whenever he pleased, a big smile plastered on his skinny little face, a yellow slip of paper held in the hand that settled his hat back on top of his head.

Murdoch grinned at the exuberance of the boy, not in the least offended by his gangly unannounced arrival. Val’s apprenticing young deputy was red faced and breathing hard, his feet in pointed toed boots seeming almost too big for his lanky teenage body.

Holding his arm to his stomach, Murdoch approached the breath-catching boy and laid a sturdy hand on his shoulder, “Take a deep breath son.”

“I…ha…ha…ha…am,” he breathed heavily. Andy dropped his hand and leaned over, taking a deep breath as Murdoch suggested, excited about the news he had for Mr. Lancer. While bent over, he stretched out his hand and waved the yellow slip of paper for Murdoch to take.

“It’s…ah…Johnny…sir!” the boy breathed heavily, “He’s…he’s…comin’ home!”

Murdoch ignored the fact that Andy had obviously read the telegram, knowing the boy idolized his son. He took the paper from Andy’s outstretched hand and read it.
San Francisco Post and Telegraph Office

To: Murdoch Lancer. Green River, California. Thursday July 7th, 1870

On my way back with Jelly…stop…three days if weather holds…stop…all is well…stop…tell T to light the way…stop…Johnny…stop

As Murdoch read the missive dated on the day before, Scott came through the front door, taking his hat from his head and placing it on a hat rack next to the door. He had seen Andy charging up the lane and his curiosity got the better of him. Dropping the harness he was about to hitch up to a pair of horses into young Jose’s hands he walked to the house, wondering what it was that had the boy so all fired worked up.

Murdoch looked up when Scott came through the door, and smiled at his son. “It’s from Johnny,” he said, holding up the slip of paper.

Scott hurried across the last few steps of the room, giving Andy a squeeze on the shoulder when he came to stand next to him. “Hey Andy,” he said. “Guess I should have known it was going to have something to do with my brother when I saw you riding in hard like that.”

Andy looked sheepish, “Sorry ‘bout that Scott. I was excited,” he explained.

Scott gave him a pat on the same shoulder, “I understand.” He looked to his father, “May I,” he asked holding out his hand.

Murdoch grinned handing Scott the message and called out loudly, “Teresa!”

Scott read the message and smiled too, his face gleaming with happiness. The news was great! His brother would be home sometime tomorrow night if there weren’t any hold ups.

“It’s a good thing we got things underway around here. Good guess and good timing Sir,” Scott commended, giving the paper a flick with his hand then handing it back to his father.

Murdoch put the message between his broken arm and his stomach and reached inside his pocket to pull out a quarter. He handed it to Andy and said, “Thank you for bringing the message Andy.”

Andy held the quarter in his hand with a big fat smile plastered on his face, “Gosh Mr. Lancer…thanks a heap but yah really don’t have tah pay me to bring yah news ‘bout Johnny. Him and me…we’re best friends and best friends don’t take money for doin’ a friend a favor.” Andy pushed the coin back into the older man’s hand, hope for his understanding written all over his young eager face. “ ‘Sides that, I brought it to yah kinda late ‘cause of that new fella working the telegraph and yah wouldn’t be payin’ ‘ol Val if he brought yah the news ‘stead of me.”

Murdoch didn’t know whether to laugh and hug this boy, or cry like a big ‘ol baby in front of all of them. Andy’s undying friendship and loyalty to Johnny pierced his heart like no other time before, making his own failings of the past year stick out like a sore thumb in his mind. He instantly regretted that the only time he’d given Johnny much of any friendship or loyalty, acceptance or acknowledgement of love, had come when he was down and out for the count. First with Pardee and then later, just before the cattle drive, when he knew he and Scott wouldn’t be able to make it, had he shown his youngest son any kind of real faith in his abilities or shown any real trace of faith, love or loyalty.

Murdoch assumed without any remorse for Johnny’s feelings on the matter that his son would do as he wished by just asking, feeding him just enough silent emotional attachment at the time to selfishly seal his son’s agreement that he would carry on and take the herd to San Francisco for him. He wished now, that he had said those words that had been in his head at the time, instead of whispering a generalization that focused on no one in particular.

 He should have spoken those words of love, gratitude and pride directly to his son, instead of only telling him not to be scared and hoping that those other feelings he was thinking shone through eyes so he wouldn’t actually have to say them out loud. It was a difficult task for a man like him to do when he had lived so long without ever having to show or say how he felt toward another human being. He had given up that trait long ago, with the abandonment of his second wife, Johnny’s mother. Only slipping now and then when it came to Teresa, his best friend’s daughter and on the rare occasion to his college educated son who reminded him so much of his beloved Catherine and a little of himself.

Looking at Andy and the glow of knowing friendship in his eyes, he promised himself that when Johnny got home, he would tell his son just how much he loved him and how proud he was of him. “You taught an old man a lesson today Andy. I can appreciate how you feel and…you’re right.” Murdoch tucked the quarter back into his pocket with an approving nod from Scott.

“What’s all the excitement?” Teresa asked walking in on the trio wearing an apron, hair pinned up at the back of her head, her face sprinkled here and there with flour.

Murdoch smiled and held his good arm out for her. When she was in the circle of his arm he gave her the note and let her read it while three pairs of eyes watched, waiting for her reaction.

Teresa’s brown eyes scanned the note and her heart somersaulted in her chest, elation flooding her face. She squealed with delight, putting her hands to her cheeks, tears of happiness flooding her eyes as she turned to Murdoch and wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him on the cheek, “He’s coming home,” she cried happily, standing on the tips of her toes, her boots completely leaving the floor when Murdoch hugged her up and pulled her off the floor joining her in the shared knowledge of the good news.

When he put her down, she turned to Scott and Andy, her face turning beet red, “Nothing’s done yet. My God! We’re so far behind now that Johnny’s coming home a week early.” She grabbed Scott’s hands in hers after tucking the message safely in her pocket, wanting to read it again later, “You are getting Sadie today aren’t you? They’re still planning on staying the week?” she asked, her excitement now mingling with her worry that the grand fiesta was still so far from being ready with the early arrival of Johnny.

Scott pulled the little whirlwind into his arms and hugged her, “I’m leaving now. Does that help some?”

Teresa kissed him on the cheek, not having to reach up nearly as far as she had with Scott’s father, “Oh it does…it does.”

“Guess I better get moving then,” Scott said giving Teresa a tweak on her nose. “Andy I’ll see you later,” he told the boy, “Why don’t you come by and join the festivities when we celebrate the end of the year drive.”

Andy turned expectant eyes toward Murdoch who didn’t let him down, “That’s a great idea Andy. Johnny will want you here and so do the rest of us.”

“Thanks Mr. Lancer. That’s a grand offer and I accept,” Andy said, his face glowing red-hot when Teresa leaned over and kissed him on the face too.

“Thank you Andy for bringing us the message. Make sure you come early when we let you know the day. There’ll be lots of food and lots of dancing,” Teresa told the boy. “Make sure you let Val know he’s invited too. He’ll be sorely disappointed if he misses out on the big party.”

Andy’s face suddenly fell, his excitement squelched by a thought, “Ah dang it all to Hell, I forgot to tell yah the news,” he told them grabbing his hat off his head and swatting it against his leg in frustration, looking and sounding a little too much for the moment like the man who was training him. At Teresa’s wide eyed surprise, Andy said, “ ‘Scuse me ma’am. I forgot a lady was present.”

“That’s all right Andy. What did you forget to tell us?” she asked grinning at the dismay on the Andy’s face.

Scott stopped short of just opening the door and going out when he heard the exchange. Plopping his hat back on his head he approached the group and stood next to Teresa, waiting expectantly for the next bit of news.

“Val was gettin’ the posse gathered up again this afternoon. Said he knows for sure where them varmint’s was hangin’ out and as soon as he gets the men together, he’s taken off after ‘em.” Andy hung his head, “I was so caught up with the news ‘bout Johnny that I forgot to tell yah.” Andy lifted his eyes and looked straight at Murdoch, his face looking older, more serious now, “He thinks they got a hankerin’ to do somethin’ dastardly toward you and yours Mr. Lancer. I was supposed to tell yah right off that yah have to be careful and to post guards if yah got any, just in case he don’t find ‘em right off.”

Scott and Murdoch both eyed each other, troubled by the news. Scott asked, “Did he say why he thinks they may come here and do something…dastardly?” He almost smiled saying the word the same as Andy, but kept his face straight when Andy continued to look seriously at them.

Andy shifted his stance, hoping he got the details right, “Said he found your last name written on a map of the ranch. Somethin’ else too ‘bout cattle prices and hopin’ Johnny ain’t carryin’ any cash on ‘im. He seems to think they want whatever money he’s bringin’ home on ‘im.” Looking down at the toes of his boots Andy said sorrowfully, “Probably best if yah hold off on celebratin’ so soon, just in case there’s trouble.”

Murdoch lifted the boy’s chin and asked, “Did anyone else other than you and the telegraph operator see the message about Johnny’s arrival home?”

Andy shook his head, “Nope. In fact that’s one of the reasons I got it to yah a day late. Old man Sweeney had it buried in a pile of papers and it wasn’t until Daniel Hanson took over today for ‘im that he found it.”

“Who is Daniel Hanson?” Scott asked, not having heard that name before.

Andy turned to Scott, “He’s Mr. Hanson’s nephew. Works for the railroad and he’s here for a visit. Turns out he knows how to run the telegraph machine and when Mr. Hanson found out that Old man Sweeney was out sick for the day, Daniel volunteered to run the office for ‘im instead of helpin’ out in the dry good’s store.”

Scott asked him a another question, “How is that you were asked to bring the message to us?”

“Well yah see… Daniel is a little older than me. On my rounds I introduced myself, me being the deputy and all, and asked him who he was. Then Mr. Hanson came by with Daniel’s lunch and we got to talkin’ bout the railroad while Daniel sorted out the messages and ate his sandwich. Mr. Hanson saw your name on the telegram when Daniel picked it up and told his nephew to give it to me to deliver it to yah straight ‘way.”

Murdoch sighed and arched his brows, thrumming his fingers on his cast as he thought. “Did they read the telegram?”

Andy shook his head, “Nope. Mr. Hanson pulled it out of Daniel’s hand so quick yah would have thought the thing was on fire. Said it wasn’t proper to read other people’s private letters and told me to put it away right then and there.” His lowered his eyes to the floor again, realizing he might be in trouble for having read the news before he got to the ranch. “I figured it was from Johnny. That’s why I took a peek at it Mr. Lancer,” Andy said apologetically.

“It’s alright Andy, so long as you didn’t say anything to anyone,” Murdoch said. “I want you to do me a favor though.”

Andy’s face lit up, “Anything Mr. Lancer. You just name it,” he said, wanting to do anything he could to help his friend.

Impulsively gripping his cast, Murdoch said, “I don’t want you to tell anyone when Johnny is coming home. You’re not to say one word or bring it up to anyone. We’ll postpone the festival until we know more. If anyone should ask, you’re to tell them nothing…for Johnny’s sake. Do you understand?”

Andy nodded his head, “I understand Sir.”

Murdoch released his grip on his cast and clamped the boy on the shoulder, “Good boy. Go on back to town now. If Mr. Hanson asks about your visit, and I don’t think he will, you tell him you dropped the message off and that’s it.”

“I got it,” Andy said. “You’ll let me know though won’t yah, when yah do have the festival?” he asked eagerly, hoping he hadn’t ruined his chance of getting another invite to the festival.

Murdoch smiled, “You bet. We can’t have a party without Johnny’s best friend…now can we?”

The brightest smile of the day lit Andy’s face, “No sir. You sure can’t,” he said happy to hear the confirmation that Johnny was his best friend and that his family knew it too.

When Andy was finally gone from the room, riding out almost as recklessly as he arrived, Murdoch sat down heavily in a chair and asked Scott to pour him a drink.

Teresa touched Scott’s shoulder as she walked by and said surprisingly, “Pour me a little one too.” She walked on by, ignoring the upraised eyebrows and the unspoken question he mentally asked of his father.

Murdoch silently nodded his head, Scott shrugged, took his hat off and he poured three drinks, only the third one wasn’t for his brother as was the usual, but for the young lady across the room from him that probably hadn’t tasted liquor in her life unless it was some kind of fashionable expensive wine served for a holiday occasion.

He hefted the drinks and rounded the sofa, handing the one with the least amount to Teresa then one to his father. He sat heavily on the sofa and before saying anything, drank a large swallow to calm his racing nerves.

Setting his glass on his thigh, Scott then asked his father, “Why did you tell Andy not to say anything?”

Murdoch rotated the glass in his hand, watching the amber liquor swirl like liquid gold in his hand, “Johnny is coming home earlier than we expected… a week earlier in fact. It may be our only leverage if those men are planning on attacking him or us for the money they obviously know he’ll be bringing home.”

“I should ride out and try to find him before he gets home,” Scott remarked.

“I’ve thought of that and I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Murdoch replied.

“Why not?” Scott asked, “If you don’t mind me asking?”

“Don’t mind at all,” Murdoch replied.

Teresa coughed a little from her seat, while listening to the conversation, her eyes watering just a little from the fiery burn of the liquor she was unaccustomed to drinking.

Scott narrowed his eyes at her, “You ok sweetheart?” he asked, noting that Murdoch noticed too and had leaned in a little in case he was needed.

Teresa cleared her throat, “No…I’m fine,” she said, brushing the unwanted tearing from her eyes and then taking another tiny sip, that one going down a lot easier than the first two.

Scott relaxed and addressed his question to his father, “Why wouldn’t you want me or one of the other men to ride out and head Johnny off?”

Murdoch swallowed the last of his drink and handed the glass back over to his son, requesting without asking, another refill, “For one…you don’t know where he is. Two, if there are men out there, watching us, you’ll do nothing but lead them right to Johnny. And lets not forget Jelly is with him as well. Three, with you or one of the other men gone, that would leave us one man shy. We’re short too many men as it is.”

Scott reached behind him and pulled the decanter over the back of the sofa, poured his father another drink and then humorously looked in Teresa’s direction when he saw that she had sat forward and was holding her now empty glass as well out toward him. Handing Murdoch’s glass back to him, Scott stood up and poured a half portion for Teresa, wanting to laugh out loud at the absurdity of Teresa drinking anything hard but refraining from doing so because of the dire situation they were discussing.

Over his shoulder he asked, “So what do we do then? We have to warn him somehow.”

“I’m thinking on it,” Murdoch mumbled into his glass, his tone just a bit on the edgy side.

Teresa sipped her drink and listened to the men talk out a possible solution to the problem getting just a frustrated as the two of them the more and more it seemed that there was no solution. The news Andy brought them dampened the very life out of what should have been an exciting day for all of them. Troubled by the thought that Johnny or Jelly could be attacked or hurt coming home, Teresa pulled the telegram out of her pocket and read it with a shaking hand. The words were fuzzy, swimming in front of her, until she squinted hard and then opened her eyes again, swallowing a larger sip of her drink. Her body tingled and grew warm as she read it a third time, wishing she had a way of warning him herself as her thoughts grew cloudy and the voices in the room began to sound like a humming in her ears, rather than clearly spoken sentences she could understand. She wanted to feel the excitement all over again yet unable to when fear was gripping her heart and squeezing the joy out of moment.

“Whom do we have besides the women and children?” Scott asked, his military training taking over his thoughts, feeling that if they just talked the problem out loud they could come up with a plan that might work.

Murdoch sighed, “There’s Cipriano, Miguel, Ned, Leon…” he tapped his finger on the edge of his glass.

“That’s four so far,” Scott said.

“I know…let me think a second,” Murdoch said irritably. “Paco…”

“Alberto and Hector,” Scott added.

“And Howard,” Murdoch added. “How many is that?” he asked.

“That makes eight, nine if you count me,” Scott told him, draining the rest of his drink.

“Tell T to light the way,” Teresa said quietly in her chair, her drink held to her lips.

Murdoch looked across the room at Teresa, not exactly sure what she said. “What was that darling?”

Teresa tilted her head, swallowed the last of her drink, holding the telegram in her other hand, “Tell T to light the way,” she said a little louder than the first time.

Teresa sat her glass down on the table next to her chair, “That’s how we can do it!” she exclaimed jumping to her feet and holding the paper out to them. “He says, Tell T to light the way.”

Murdoch looked at her curiously but Scott suddenly understood what she meant, “You’re right!” he said with excitement getting up take the note from Teresa.

He turned to his father and said, “She’s right. There is a way to warn him that we hadn’t thought of.”

Murdoch narrowed his eyes skeptically, “How?” he asked.

“The light in the window,” Scott and Teresa said in unison.

“What light in the window?” Murdoch asked. He didn’t know about the promise Teresa had made to Johnny that she would have a light waiting for him in the window of his room.

Scott knew because he had found her in Johnny’s room one evening, pressing his old red shirt to her face after putting a new candle in the holder that sat in the windowsill. Scott had asked her later after Val left what the candle was for and Teresa had told him, unashamed by the simple gesture that only meant something to her and Johnny. At the time, Scott had thought it a little ridiculous since Johnny wouldn’t be home for weeks, but seeing her diligence and thoughtfulness to remember to do it each and every night, bore witness to the steadfast love she held in her heart for his brother.

Even apart, the two of them had a connection that they shared that neither he nor Murdoch truly realized had such depth and meaning to each other. Teresa told him she lit her candle as a symbol of her faith, trust and love for Johnny, knowing in her heart that Johnny would look for that symbol while traveling home, expecting to see her guiding light, having faith that she would remember, trust that she would guide him home and loving her for loving him.

How eloquent her words had been when said so softly, lovingly, under the flickering lights of the heavenly stars above, understanding completely, hoping that he and Sadie had that same kind of love. It was still too new to be sure, but he thought they did, hoped they did. Scott had looked at Teresa with a new kind of wonder that night, wondering when it was that she had become so wise and so knowing of the feelings between a man and a woman, finding her poetic and wistfully far away when she talked of her romantic feelings for Johnny.

“Teresa puts a light in Johnny’s window every evening. She has since the first day he left,” Scott told his father, putting a hand on Teresa’s arm to still her response.

“Why would you do that?” Murdoch wanted to know.

Scott squeezed her arm, “To guide his way home if he’s traveling late at night.”

Murdoch looked as if his mind was swirling, lost in thought as he stared at the floor in front of his feet. “They shouldn’t get in until late. It takes at least three days to get home by horse and that’s stopping for the occasional rest and food break.”

“That’s right,” Scott said, letting Teresa’s arm go.

Teresa suspected that Scott, in his own way was saving her the embarrassment of having to share her true intent with Murdoch since he didn’t know about the feelings between her and his son. She sat back down and Scott followed suit.

“And you think that will work?” Murdoch asked, hope lacing his voice.

Scott nodded, “I do. If Johnny doesn’t see that light in the window he’ll know something is wrong. He might not know what it is, but he’ll be wary making his presence known if anything should go wrong.”

Murdoch drank the last of his liquor then stood up and crossed the room, setting his glass down on the table behind the sofa, “Scott, tell the men to stand guard from this night on until we find out more from Val,” he said with his back to Scott and Teresa. “Teresa?” he called.

Teresa got up and went to Murdoch’s side. He put his arm around her and kissed the top of her head, “Don’t light your candle tonight or any other night…just in case.”

Scott got up and put his glass next to Murdoch’s on the small table. He picked up the hat he’d discarded earlier and donned it with a firm pull on the front and back of the brim, heading for the door. He opened it only to be abruptly startled by Jose, Cipriano’s young nephew who stood in front of the door, his hand lifted in midair as if he were about to knock.

Stepping back Scott asked, “What is it Jose?”

“Wagon coming señor,” the dark haired boy told him.

Murdoch and Teresa went to the door and followed Scott outside. In the fading light of day there was indeed a wagon approaching the Lancer arch. By the time it got half way down the lane Scott was able to tell that it was Sadie and her family. He wondered why they were here when he was supposed to go to their place and ride back with them, but with all that had happened in the past hour he found himself running later than he’d expected.

Scott stood to Murdoch’s left and watched the wagon approach, feeling the warm hand of his father on his shoulder, knowing the man was grateful his son didn’t have to ride out by the way the hand lingered affectionately, almost protectively on his person. There was a part of him too, that was glad he didn’t have to ride to the McIntyre’s. Having them come on their own saved him a lot of time he would be better off spending making sure the crew were warned and stationed appropriately throughout the complex of their home. The hard part was knowing that Sadie and her family could be just as much at risk now as his family, unable to cancel their plans for spending the next week in his house now that they were here. Boyd McIntyre would scoff at the idea of tucking tail and going back home and he didn’t think his wife or children would feel any different.

As the wagon drew up, all thoughts of Sadie ever going home completely vanished from his mind in a flash. While his heart was heavy for what possibly lay ahead his soul soared to the Heavens as he pulled from his father’s grip and amidst the hearty calls of greeting lifted his arms to the one he loved, forgetting in that one moment of time anything other than the green eyed girl who had so captured his heart and soul.

 

Part 40

“You doin’ alright Jelly?” Johnny asked.

“No I ain’t doin’ alright. My butt’s so dang sore I ain’t gonna be able to sit on it fer a month of Sundays…no thanks to you,” the old man grumbled. “Got me a passel of blisters that I have a good mind to share with yah if I had a way tah make ‘em jump from my butt to yers.”

Johnny had the good grace not to laugh out loud at Jelly’s discomfort. It wasn’t like his rear end didn’t need a rest too. The two of them had ridden hard since yesterday morning, both of them agreeing right from the beginning that they wanted to get home as quickly as they could. They stopped only occasionally to rest their horses and water them when they could, eating as they rode, pressing onward with the hope of reaching Lancer a day earlier than the word that had been sent to his father.

He wasn’t sure though that getting home early was the best thing if it meant pushing his friend too hard. Jelly was older and his stamina, pretty good for his age, wasn’t what it used to be in his heyday.

“Hold up Jelly!” Johnny called out from behind the old wrangler.

Jelly pulled up on his reins, his lips pressing together as he sighed heavily through his nose. Twisting in the saddle, he waited as Johnny walked Barranca to his side, “What now?” he asked in exasperation.

“I think we should stop for the night,” Johnny replied.

Jelly’s cheeks inflated as he blew out a deep breath, “Now what on earth for?”

“Barranca’s tired,” Johnny answered leaning over the saddle horn and running his hand down Barranca’s sleek neck.

Jelly took off his cap and swiped his arm across his brow, his thinning gray hair ruffling in the slight breeze that blew across the open valley. Pulling out a bandana he mopped the top of his balding head and put his cap back on with a huff, “That horse ain’t tired!” he growled. “Barranca could ride all day and all night and you know it.”

He took his canteen off his saddle horn and uncorked it, drinking thirstily while Johnny watched him with keen eyes that could barely be seen under the light of a three quarter moon. When he was done, Jelly smacked his lips and offered the canteen to Johnny saying, “Got me a twenty dollar gold piece in this here pocket…” he patted his pocket after Johnny took the canteen from him, “that says I can hold up better ‘an that horse of yers if I’m of a mind too and…” he took the canteen back from Johnny, “I’m of a mind too.”

Johnny leaned over, resting his elbow on his saddle horn, pushing his hat back off his forehead. “But you just said…”

Jelly interrupted him shaking his head, “Uh…Uh…Uh…I didn’t say a gall dern thing. You just get that through yer thick head right this minute.” Jelly kicked the sides of his horse, his arms held high, his reins too slack in his hands, “We ain’t got far tah go,” he called back over his shoulder, “Iffen yah want to lollygag and take a rest…then go ahead. Don’t make me no never mind Johnny Lancer. Me and Daisy May… we’re goin’ home.”

Jelly looked over his shoulder, barely keeping his seat in the process, his flaying limbs awkward and funny looking to Johnny in the silvery light of the moon. “Well…Yah gonna sit thar like a bump on a log or are yah comin’” Jelly shouted, his blistered hind end bumping up and down on his saddle seat.

Johnny sat up straight, calling out with a tired smile, “I’m comin’…I’m comin’” He kneed Barranca’s sides and the horse took off at a lope, catching up quickly with Jelly and his Daisy May.

They rode on steady and sure, both men tired and saddle sore but thankful they would reach Lancer well before dawn. The closer they got, the more and more Johnny looked forward to seeing that beacon of light. He missed his family, but he missed Teresa even more. Every step that brought him closer to his home made that feeling intensify ten fold, until he could barely contain the excitement on his face or the trembling in his hands. Thankful that it was dark and that the brim of his hat hid any light that might reveal the emotions he was feeling to the very knowing man who rode beside him.

Jelly was old, but he was wiser than most when it came to reading him like a book. Where others failed to know what lay behind the shuttered blue eyes, Jelly knew him instinctively, never once being fooled by his remoteness or put off by his alter ego, never letting him distance himself too long without a sharp mental tug upon his conscience. Jelly had a way of pulling him out of his skin, making him see who he really was, guiding him to an understanding of how things were and how things could be with just the right amount of logic and straightforward talk that always hit its mark even if he never let the old man know it.

 Johnny was grateful for his friendship, reminding him of the wonders the last year had bestowed upon him. He had Scott, a brother he looked up to and admired, a man he couldn’t be more proud of, and Teresa, his life, his love, the woman he hoped would one day be his wife. Then there was Murdoch, his father, a man he wanted so much to love him. A man he wouldn’t have thought in a million years would have become his lifeline, saving him from a horrendous fate that still left him gasping for air in the dead of night when troubled.

Just like Johnny, Jelly had his own set of thoughts running wildly through his head. Thinking of Lancer, the one word that kept rolling over and over in his mind was home.  A word he hadn’t really had a chance to use too many times in his life. Oh he’d had places to stay, family he could visit, but more often than not, those times were few and far between having lived his previous life more of a drifter, a man with a gift for gab, happy if he had a few coins in his pocket and meal in his belly. Taking on all kinds of odd jobs from wrangler to cook, miner to pickpocket when times were tough. That part of his life hadn’t lasted very long. Guilt and conscience made sure of that.

His life changed one day, long, long ago, the first time he found one of his lost boys. From that day onward his life took on new meaning. Realizing there were others in the world less fortunate than him, his desire to sweep them up and cradle them to his bosom overriding any sense of selfishness he might have had, bringing to life within his soul a desire to love, to make right the injustices heaped upon the heads of those who couldn’t fend for themselves. He found boys who had no father, no mother, no direction or guidance in their lives, taking upon his shoulders the burden of their well being, reminding them that someone cared and that someone loved them. Jelly hadn’t done it all right, he knew that, like he knew the sun rose in the east and sat in the west. But he had done his best and his best had kept them all alive.

Life changed once again when Murdoch and Scott entered his life by his crooked, well-meaning hand. They took pity on him, something he wasn’t above taking, and gave him a place to recoup, to gather his thoughts, to lie, cheat and steal from them, all in the name of love for his boys without the Lancers at first knowing of his deception. Tears still sprang to his eyes when he thought of his boys, Doogie most especially, though they were all special in their respective ways. The Lancers forgave his rash and illegal attempts to give his ragamuffin family shelter and food, offering to help when Johnny told his family of his predicament, protecting him when needed and most of all, helping him to find proper homes for his boys without making him feel like a thief and a loser for what he had tried to do. Understanding and forgiveness had changed him for all time, his love for his boys, not gone from his heart, but spilled over to include a newfound family. His family.

As if in silent communication, their thoughts traveling on the same atmospheric plane, both men put their heels to their mounts and rode just a little harder, just a little faster, both wanting to get home to ones they loved.

**************************************

“What do yah see now?” Craddock demanded to know from Clyde Willows who lay stretched out on the ground of an overlook, his elbows digging into the soft green grass, one eye pressed up to Craddock’s spyglass.

Clyde chewed on a blade of grass, dropped the eyepiece to the ground and said, “Can’t see much of nothin’. Too damn dark.”

“What did yah see before it got too damn dark!” Craddock growled.

Clyde pushed himself up onto his knees and said, “Same as before. I’m still countin’ eight. Might be more ‘an that but there’s women and children comin’ and goin’ so I was hard pressed to make out anythin’ more.”

Clyde got to his feet and handed the spyglass to Craddock who took it roughly from his hands.

“Good news is…looks like most of ‘em are headin’ in for the night,” Clyde continued.

“Tell me again where they’re all posted,” Craddock said gravelly, biting back the bile that rose in his throat every time he thought about the money that was missing from his hiding place.

Clyde pulled the blade of grass from his lips and tossed it on the ground, “Yah got two at the front gate.”

“The archway?” Craddock asked his jaw grinding.

“Nope…the second one,” Clyde told him.

“All right, go on,” Craddock said, eyeing his men as they listened on and moved in closer.

“Got one outside the guest house, another on the right side of the house, stationed on the staircase landing, the old fella, one with the sombrero…he’s up in the tower with a rifle.”

“What about the rest of ‘em,” Craddock demanded when Clyde slowed to think.

Clyde looked out across the valley and continued, “There’s three more,” he pointed, “one by the smithy shop...one at the barn and the last man is standing guard on the far end of the corral where the storage building is on the left side of the property.”

“What about them folks that drove in just a little while ago?” Butcher Drake asked, scratching the thick black sideburns on his face, peering intently over the ledge and down into the valley as if by doing so he could make out the figures more clearly.

“Yeah, What about ‘em?” Craddock added.

“Most of ‘em are inside. Saw that big fella come out a little bit ago and head off to the corral,” Clyde informed them.

“We goin’ down boss?” Fred Wallace asked twisting that infernal mustache of his.

Craddock let the irritating behavior alone this time and walked to the edge of the overlook to stand next to Butcher.  Craddock thinking on the question cast a sidelong look at the heavy set man standing next to him and watched as Butcher drew his long blade knife from his sheath.

The steel blade glinted in the light of the newly risen moon, looking deadlier in the blue of the night than when seen in the bright light of day. “Yep…We’re goin’ down soon as everyone settles in for the night,” Craddock finally answered. His steely light blue eyes gleaming evilly as he watched Butcher kiss the flat of his blade and then slowly shove it back into its leather casing.

“Get over here boys, it’s time for business,” he called over his shoulder without turning around.

Fred, Kirk, Frank, Rusty and Jake Fletcher joined Craddock and the other two men at the overlook. Craddock pointed down the valley to the Lancer compound with a long unwavering finger, his anger and rage barely concealed by the brim of his hat. “

“Clyde?” Craddock said.

“Yeah boss.”

“You gonna be able to take out the old man in the tower?”

Clyde ran his hand down the barrel of his sharp shooter, “No problem boss.”

Craddock nodded his head, “Butcher…I want you and Kirk to take the men at the front gate. Yah get those two out of the picture then the rest is a piece of cake. Yah got it?”

“Yah want us to knife ‘em boss?” Kirk Means asked running a hand through his scruffy red beard, “or shoot ‘em?”

Craddock stepped up to the eager young red head and poked him on the chest, “I want yah to do it quiet like…quick and easy with no foolin’ around. Take ‘em down and take ‘em down fast and hard. If that means yah gotta knife ‘em, then do it!”

Craddock swerved his eyes to Frank Granger. “I want you to take the man by the corral. When Butcher and Kirk move in, you do the same.” Frank nodded his curly dark head and sucked in his gut, making sure his gun belt was good and tight on his hips.

Like a military sergeant Craddock moved down the line of his men. To Rusty and Jake Fletcher he said, “You two boys will take the man in the barn and the one by the smithy shop. You’ll have to swing around to the far left and come up in behind ‘em. We’ll give yah a five minute head start so we’re all on the same time schedule.”

Craddock stepped back and found Fred, “I want you to go with me. We’ll take the men closest to the house.”

Fred Wallace cackled and his hand started to go to his mustache, but suddenly halted when he saw Craddock raise his right hand as if to back hand him, “Sorry boss,” he said, lowering his hand back down to his side. “Which one yah want me to take?”

“You’ll take the one on the right side of the house, on the staircase. Come in through that door when yah got the job done and join me inside the house. I should have the one outside the guest house taken care of by that time.”

His men started to move out but Craddock stopped them before they could move more than a foot, “Butcher…Clyde, Kirk…you come inside when you got your job finished. The rest of you stand guard and keep a watchful eye out for that snoopy sheriff if he comes a callin’. Iffen yah do see ‘im…shoot ‘im dead. We might have a short wait or a long wait, just depends on when Johnny Lancer comes ridin’ in with his daddy’s money in his pocket. So stay alert. If the women folk or kids give us any problem, lock ‘em up some where’s and throw away the key.”

“Yah want us tah move out now boss?” Frank asked, fingering the butt of his gun.

Craddock shook his head, “Let’s give it about an hour or so boys. No since crashin’ their little party too early...might be the last one they’ll ever have.”

The group of men laughed wickedly at his joke, parting from the inner circle and went to get their gear. Each man sobered up and mentally prepared himself for the task ahead. Not a one of them was above killing a man in cold blood; one of several reasons Craddock had hand picked each one of them to join his gang.

As he sat and cleaned his gun, Craddock kept his eyes going from his hands to his men. He was satisfied to see that each had taken a seat by their belongings; quiet in thought with the time fast approaching when they would make their attack. The men might be a ragtag of misfits, but each man was careful with his firearm, fastidious in making sure they were oiled and primed, chambers full, balance carefully checked with a piercing eye down the sight of the barrel.

The dying fire, made so that they could all see when the sun dipped behind the horizon was burned low, never having been much more than just a flickering light in the first place. They didn’t need it really, not with the near full moon rising in the sky, light enough so long as they took their time down the steep slope upon which they sat over looking the valley and the Lancer compound.

His men hadn’t asked about the bank money, not after the last time. They all had a sick blind faith in him as their leader that he would divvy it up when the time was right. But he suspected too, that fear kept them from pushing him any further on the subject. Especially after he had returned to camp in a raging foul mood the night before when he found the money missing.  He didn’t know who took it or where it was now, but he did know that it hadn’t been one of his men. They each had been accounted for the entire time by Clyde and that left only a couple of possible scenarios that could explain how it was that the money was missing.

He supposed that either someone came across it or that the bungling sheriff of Green River had managed to somehow track his way to the hiding spot. He didn’t know how someone as inept as the sheriff appeared, could have done so, but he wasn’t ruling out the best suspicion he had. If he found out the money was back in the bank, there would be Hell to pay, of that he was sure. When he was done with Lancer, his next state of business was to find out one-way or the other. Until then, the money he got from Murdoch Lancer would have to suffice and so it would be for his men as well. For now, what they didn’t know couldn’t hurt them…or him he reckoned. He wasn’t a fool by any means and he knew that if he had let it slip that the money was gone his men would have turned on him in a heart beat. He had the confidence of an insane man that he could take them all on, but he was just smart enough not to test that theory until he had some cash to back him up.

An hour and a half later near midnight, when the coyotes howled at the moon and the circle of light was at its zenith, Craddock and his men mounted up and rode like demons in the night. Pounding hooves echoed in the darkness as the nightriders made their way into the valley, stark silhouettes of black against a sea of midnight blue and twinkling starlight.

*************************************

Near thirty miles or more away in Green River, gathered another group of men in the wee hours of the morning just before the dawn. It had taken some time to gather them all but after a long drawn out search, every man was accounted for and having a star pinned upon the left side of his chest.

Val stepped back and surveyed his posse. There were five of them, not including himself. Terrance Littleton was there, a surprise to Val when the banker came strolling in at the last minute with a smirky grin on his face, daring him to say anything about the way he was dressed, which Val did in a heartbeat.

 “Yah look all dangerous and wicked Terrance!”

 “Shut up Val!” the banker growled.

 “You’re the one who’s dressed like some kind of Spanish bandito,” Val insisted, “What did yah expect me to say?” he insisted to know with a toothy grin plastered on his face.

Terrance walked up to the cracked mirror that hung on Val’s wall, what it was doing there in the first place Terrance couldn’t begin to speculate since Val obviously didn’t use it for the purpose it was intended for. He eyed himself critically in the mirror, slicking back a few strands of black and gray hairs that had pried themselves loose from the side of his head, adjusted the red bandanna at his neck and craned his head to see that his black shirt had no traces of lint on the shoulders. He turned to face the other men, shifting his belted black pants and black gun belt, stomping his feet on the floor in shiny black boots, all in all, looking just as Val described…a Spanish bandito. “I think I look rather fetching in my deputy clothes. Dark and dangerous, wouldn’t you say fellas?” he asked the group mildly.

A murmur of yes and yep’s filled the room, much to Val’s disgusted chagrin, “All right you men. Yah got yer belly full of mister high and mighty here…now lets get down to business.”

The stars were pinned on each man, Terrance being the last one. As Val was pinning the badge on his chest, Terrance said just under his breath, “I think I look fine.”

Val smirked one side of his mouth up, “You would say that El Capitan!”

Val stepped back and said, “Now you boys hold up your right hands.”

 “Terrance, Rafe, Bill, Dex and Mooney…You all promise to uphold the law and see to it that justice is carried out under the guidelines mentioned to yah the last time?” Val asked, his eyes going to each man as he said his name.

Five voices said ‘Yes’ and Val told them they could lower their hands. He turned around and with a set of keys, unlocked the gun cabinet and pulled out a rifle. It soared through the air and Rafe caught it in his hand with a sure grip and a smile on his face.

He did the same with four more rifles until each of his men had one in their hand. “Lock and load boys, it’s time to get this dance underway.”

Boxes of ammunition were pulled out and handed to each man. When that was done, Val took one last look at everyone and said, “This could be the big one boys. Don’t be careless if we find this gang. Follow my orders and do your best to stay low if we get into a shootout. Don’t know for sure where they are, but I got my reasons for thinking they might be on their way to the Lancer ranch.”

Terrance knew why Val thought this. Val had come to him straight away when he got back to town after finding the outlaws hideout, sharing with him all that he had found. Between the two of them they put out the word that Rafe, Bill, Dex and Mooney were needed for a posse. Andy was sent to two of the ranches to get Rafe Monroe and Bill Thompson, while Terrance went to Dex Martin’s ranch and Val to Mooney Farmer’s. It took several hours to gather them together but the men had come and for that Val was grateful.

The men he picked were all bachelor’s living on their own with no wives to complain of the early hour for it was only a few more hours before dawn by the time all of them had been contacted and sworn in. “Let’s go,” Val said picking up a black hat off his desk. He followed the rest of the men toward the door, shoving the black hat at Terrance’s chest, “Don’t forget this,” he said, leaning in toward his friend, “If yer ah gonna do this all gussied up, you might as well make sure yah got the whole ensemble.”

Val smacked his lips and walked away with a grin on his face, his rifle held firm in a low swinging grip.

The men mounted up, rifles shoved into their scabbards, the skies above still dark and cloudless, bright with millions of stars sprinkled across the skyline. Terrance pulled on his reins and backed his horse from the hitch rail, sidling next to Val, “Where did you pick up the word ensemble, Val? Didn’t know you knew a word like that,” he said laughing.

Val pulled his hat low over his eyes and looked at Terrance with cold serious eyes, “There’s a lot yah don’t know ‘bout me Terrance. If we come out of this in one piece, I reckon that’s a story I’ll tell yah when yah buy me a couple ah drinks at the saloon.”

Terrance snorted through his high brow nose, “That good huh?”

 “Um hum…” Val answered giving his reins a flick as he leaned over his horse and sped off with his men close behind.

Thundering hooves vibrated in the air around them as six men rode hell bent for leather out of town, their mission one of urgency and timing, their expressions suddenly hard and unforgiving as they each imagined the fight that lay ahead of them if they found the gang of desperados. Val knew in his gut they would. The sense of death and destruction lay heavy in his heart and soul, his gut telling him that they may already be too late, but hoping he was wrong.

To Chapters 41 - 46

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